It’s hard to miss the towering 30-foot tree in the center court at the South Hill Mall.
From top to bottom, it’s decorated for the holidays with giant red bulbs, lights, snowmen hats and snowflakes, catching the eyes of passersby.
But in other hallways, looking closely, it might seem as though the mall is a little sparse on holiday decorations this year.
“People notice that it’s different,” South Hill Mall property manager Wendy Noel said. “They don’t know the backstory and all the gray hairs it took to get there.”
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
People notice that it’s different. They don’t know the backstory and all the gray hairs it took to get there.
Wendy Noel, South Hill Mall property manager
That backstory is this: In August, a warehouse behind the mall caught fire, destroying all of the mall’s holiday decorations — about $200,000 worth.
All that was left?
“The only thing we really managed to save was the Santa sleigh,” South Hill Mall marketing director Patty Summers said, adding that professional help was needed to restore it.
But everything else was toast. Gone were the trees, the banners, the lights to decorate the columns. Even tools and Easter decorations were gone. If it wasn’t burned, it was smoke damaged, Summers said.
With only months until the start of the holiday season, Summers was feeling the pressure.
It might have been okay if these were average holiday decorations — one quick trip to the store might replenish the stock. But when it comes to decorating malls, not to mention 20- to 30-foot trees, there are rules. Ornaments have to be shatter-proof and wired onto trees so they won’t fall off. And everything had to be special ordered.
$200,000 worth of lost decorations
Special orders could take months and months to arrive.
So as soon as she could, Summers put in an order for three trees. Normally, the mall had only two large trees.
While Summers waited for those to arrive, she did her best to find ornaments. Corporate decided on themes for each of its malls — South Hill was “Let it Snow”— and the retrofitted ornaments were arriving soon. Salvaged decorations were also sent from other malls.
“Everybody’s been so kind and generous when we asked for some help,” Summers said.
But more was needed. Summers bought most decorations retail, nearly clearing out nearby Michaels and Hobby Lobby stores, she said. While it gave her the opportunity to buy brand-new decorations, she wanted everything to look cohesive.
The trees were supposed to arrive at the end of October, when the mall usually starts decorating, but were held up. They finally arrived on Nov. 6, the same week the mall started pictures with Santa, which run daily through Dec. 24.
The cause of the fire is still unknown, and the decision to either repair or rebuild the storage unit is pending.
Everything used to decorate the area Santa occupies for pictures was purchased retail — the trees, the ornaments, the presents. The one saving grace was the red carpet, which cost several thousand dollars. Summers had ordered it in March, and it was late getting in, so it hadn’t burned in storage with everything else.
“That was really a blessing for us,” Summers said.
Black Friday was great, Noel said, and the loss in decorations hadn’t diminished any of the mall’s traffic.
“I think it speaks a lot for our team,” she said. “I think we pulled it off.”
Officials still don’t know what caused the fire, Noel said, and they’re deciding whether to repair or completely rebuild the storage unit. She’s hoping to have a clearer picture of what to do by the end of the month. For now, they’ll use a rented pod for any storage needs.
“I think we did a pretty good job putting it together and the mall looks nice,” Summers said.