Lee Michael Berg launched his first jewelry store in Cortana Mall in 1978, about two years after it opened. The former Zale's senior vice president's father, who worked in commercial real estate in Dallas, suggested the big new shopping center in Baton Rouge. The decision paid off for what is now a nine-store chain in four states.
“That store in its day was the best store we ever had,” Berg said. “The traffic was unbelievable.”
Cortana was Baton Rouge's main retail destination for about 20 years. But this past weekend's closure of its last store, a Dillard's discount clearance center, marked the end of the era. Cortana is being demolished to make way for an Amazon distribution center that will be more than twice the mall's size.
Lee Michaels did $1.2 million in sales that first year, as shoppers regularly came from as far away as New Orleans, Lafayette and Houma-Thibodaux.
Milton J. Womack, who helped develop and build Cortana, stopped by the jewelry store every Saturday to ask Berg how business was.
“He had tremendous pride in that mall,” Berg said.
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While its location at Airline Highway and Florida Boulevard became one of the busiest intersections in the city, the land had been "nothing but heavy timber with a few beaver ponds," said Frank G. Sullivan Jr., one of the mall’s developers and owners, in a 1986 Advocate story. It had been part of the Cortana Plantation, a sugar-cane farming operation.
Sullivan and Womack had acquired the 417-acre site with plans to develop a regional mall on the property. At the time, the only mall in the city was Bon Marche, located about 2 miles west down Florida Boulevard.
In 1970, Morton L. Olshan, president of New York-based Mall Properties, joined the partnership.
Mall Properties oversaw the architectural and engineering layout; attracted top national and local retailers, including Sears, J.C. Penney, Dillard’s and locally owned Goudchaux’s; and established the mall management.
“The people that built Cortana knew what they were doing,” said Dottie Tarleton, a commercial real estate agent with Stirling Properties. “They were pretty savvy with their connections.”
Construction started on Cortana in 1974. The mall cost $7.7 million to build, which comes to $41 million after adjusting for inflation.
"There were a few delays along the way," Sullivan said in the 1986 interview. "One such delay was a hurricane knocking down steel that had been erected."
Sullivan was responsible for the site preparation — clearing the land, putting in the utilities and building a five-lane, 1.5-mile ring road around the mall site. Womack was responsible for the construction of the mall. It was an ambitious undertaking. At the time, Cortana was the largest enclosed mall in the South and the largest single-story mall in the nation, with 1.5 million square feet of space.
In February 1976, Goudchaux’s was the first anchor store in Cortana to open. Ironically, thanks to a series of department store mergers and acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s, that space is now occupied by the Dillard’s clearance center.
The interior of the mall, which contained 100 tenants, opened on Aug. 4, 1976, along with the J.C. Penney store. The two remaining anchors — Dillard’s and Sears — opened before the end of the year, along with the mall’s movie theater. Cortana’s fifth anchor, Wilson’s, opened in 1977. Wilson’s was a locally owned catalog showroom that was acquired by Service Merchandise in 1985.
Giovanni Mucciacciaro owned the popular Mama Brava Italian restaurant, known by Cortana shoppers for its pizza and pasta. When the restaurant opened in 1979, it was right across from the movie center outside the shopping center.
Cortana Mall, once a thriving prime retail center in Baton Rouge, will soon become an Amazon distribution center.
“There would be lines around the restaurant. It was very, very busy. It was a zoo,” Mucciacciaro recalls.
Mark Hebert, of Kurz & Hebert Commercial Real Estate, said that in 1984 he was working with local hairdresser Sam Brocato to get one of his Lockworks salons into Cortana.
“There was a bidding war for the space,” Hebert said. “There was only one space left in the mall and three or four people were looking at it. It was outside of the entrance to Wilson’s, which was not the most advantageous part to be in the mall. It was truly, truly amazing.”
Nancy Shawhan said she was amazed by Cortana. She became a regular at the mall in 1985, after she got married and moved to St. Francisville from north Louisiana.
"We were young, broke and in a new place, and we would spend hours wandering around just looking," she said in a recent Facebook comment to The Advocate. "When we did have some money, we loved Mervyn’s and Sears, and occasionally a splurge at Gap. Everything was so modern and trendy! We could pass the time enjoying each other’s company and exploring things that our country upbringing just didn’t expose us to."
The strong sales continued at Cortana, but there were signs of trouble on the horizon. The population of Baton Rouge began shifting to the southern part of the parish.
In response, construction of the 1.3 million-square-foot Mall of Louisiana started in April 1996. The new mall off Interstate 10 at Bluebonnet Boulevard got commitments from major retailers such as Sears, J.C. Penney, McRae’s, Maison Blanche (a rename from Goudchaux's) and Dillard’s. About 60% of the initial tenants had locations in Cortana.
Berg had a Lee Michaels store in the Mall of Louisiana when it first opened. The Cortana location remained open for several years afterward, but Berg closed it after his Bocage jewelry store opened. “By then, there was not much left in Cortana,” he said.
Hebert said Baton Rouge wasn’t big enough to support two malls the size of Cortana and the Mall of Louisiana — and that was bad for Cortana. “People always like what’s new,” he said.
Mucciacciaro said he sold Mama Brava a month before the Mall of Louisiana opened in October 1997. “We did great business over there; it was a great mall,” he said, “but competition killed it.”
During the first year the Mall of Louisiana was open, Cortana reported a 15% drop in sales, about what management expected. But unflattering comparisons with Bon Marche, which was slowly put out of business by Cortana, began to surface.
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Cortana continued to hold on. Service Merchandise went out of business in 2002, but two years later, the shopping center brought in Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear, a national chain that specialized in selling discount college logo athletic wear.
The national recession of 2008 accelerated the demise of Cortana as major retailers began shedding underperforming locations to stay afloat financially. That meant dumping Cortana stores in favor of the locations in the Mall of Louisiana.
Shifts in the retail landscape and Baton Rouge population started to work against Cortana. More people started to shop online.
"Basically, Cortana died because it was in the wrong location," Tarleton said. "Back then, Airline and Florida was in the middle of the city and they were two main traffic arteries. Over the years, that’s changed."
Mervyn’s closed its anchor store in 2006 and no one took it over.
Eventually, that trend hit the mall’s anchor stores. Steve & Barry’s went out of business in 2009. By 2011, the occupancy rate in Cortana dropped to around 50% and the mall’s lender took it over from Mall Properties.
In 2013, Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Leasing & Management bought the interior of Cortana and the Mervyn's space in 2013 for $6.15 million. The company had experience turning around distressed shopping centers and spoke confidently about Baton Rouge remaining a two-mall city. There was talk about bringing a movie theater back to the mall, in the former Mervyn’s location.
Then Macy’s closed its anchor store in early 2016. Moonbeam shifted gears and even marketed Cortana to businesses displaced by the August 2016 flood. The company said it wanted to bring in health care, education and office tenants. Moonbeam pointed to successes in the Orlando, Florida, area, where it turned empty anchor stores into call centers for Xerox and Bed Bath & Beyond, creating hundreds of jobs.
None of those alternative uses panned out and Cortana continued to shed anchor tenants as financially distressed retailers whittled down their holdings. In early 2017, Sears and J.C. Penney closed their Cortana stores. By then, the only anchors left were Dillard’s, which had converted into a clearance center that only took up one floor of the original space, and Virginia College.
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Moonbeam put Cortana on the market in August 2017, with an asking price of $4 million. There were no takers. By late 2018, Virginia College had closed its campus. The mall effectively shut down in September 2019, when the few remaining tenants were asked to leave and the mall was closed to the public. Dillard's remained open, but it no longer had an inlet into the mall.
About that time, talk around the city speculated that Amazon was eyeing Cortana as the site for a massive distribution center. After more than two years of negotiations with Moonbeam and the various parties that owned Cortana's anchor stores, a deal was finally worked out. Amazon paid at least $17.25 million for the mall. Demolition of the shopping center started a little over a month ago. Plans are to open the 3.8 million-square-foot distribution center in September 2022. That center will be more than twice the size of Cortana.
The hope is the distribution center can boost the Airline/Florida intersection like the mall did in the early 1970s, bringing in businesses that want to reach the several thousand employees who will go to Amazon every day. There's also speculation that other retailers and third-party logistics companies will follow Amazon's lead and build their own distribution centers nearby.
"Everything in that part of town is changing," Tarleton said. "All of this is because of the internet and shopping online."