DeBartolo Legacy Exhibit Memorializes Man Who Built Southern Park Mall

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Denise DeBartolo York glances upward and across a long, panoramic collection of family photographs and history that fills an entire wall of a newly renovated portion of the Southern Park Mall.

Her father, Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., forged a revolution in the retail industry as one of the first – and one of the most successful – shopping mall developers in the country.

“It’s a happy night,” DeBartolo York said after she cut the ribbon opening the new DeBartolo Commons and Legacy exhibit Friday evening.

But the celebration didn’t come without a tinge of bittersweet feelings, as DeBartolo York took in the timeline and images commemorating her family’s legacy.

“These were the good old days that we’ll never get back,” she said.

Indeed, DeBartolo Commons points to an entirely new direction for the future of retail malls across the country. Columbus-based Washington Prime Group owns the mall today, and officials were on hand to officially open the $30 million repurposing and redevelopment of portions of the mall Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. built.

DeBartolo Commons includes a public outdoor space featuring a soccer field, an amphitheater stage and pavilion.

The DeBartolo Legacy exhibit is just inside the doors leading into the mall, where three new tenants – Double Bogey’s Bar & Grille, the Steel Valley Brew Works and The Bunker – will open soon.

In addition to the sprawling timeline, the exhibit features standing floor displays that examine DeBartolo’s career from strip plaza developer in the 1950s to the owner of some of this country’s most storied sports franchises.

There are photographs of the San Francisco 49ers, which DeBartolo purchased in 1977, during the NFL team’s reign in the 1980s. Others include memorabilia from his ownership of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team and Thistledown Racetrack.

“I have to thank the people from Washington Prime,” DeBartolo York said. “They found things that I didn’t know about – pictures that I’ve never seen.”

Edward J. DeBartolo was born in Youngstown in 1909 and grew up as part of the ethnically diverse Smoky Hollow neighborhood. His father, Anthony Paonessa, died of pneumonia just two months before he was born. His mother Rose married Michael DeBartolo, a construction contractor.

Ultimately DeBartolo earned a degree in civil engineering from Notre Dame, served during World War II, and when he returned home struck out on his own and in 1948 established the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. During the early 1950s, DeBartolo constructed the first strip plaza in the region, Boardman Plaza. By the 1960s, the developer turned his focus ton building enclosed shopping malls.

In 1969, the company opened the first phase of what would be the Southern Park Mall – an anchor Sears retail store. The entire mall opened in 1970.

Within two decades, DeBartolo had developed malls all across the country. His success helped leverage the acquisition of champion sports franchises. He died in 1994.

“Our intent in designing this exhibit was really to pay homage to such an incredible icon and pioneer,” said Jennifer Moretti, senior vice president and chief activation officer for Washington Prime. “We are excited to tell this story and bring it to life.”

The invitation-only event Friday brought county and township officials, local business leaders and family friends who paid tribute to the DeBartolo family and its commitment to the Mahoning Valley. The public grand opening is today.

“He is certainly the pioneer in our industry who paved the way for everything you see here tonight,” said Brian Gabbert, the mall manager. “We want to pay tribute to the legacy that the DeBartolo-York family has instilled within the community and the Mahoning Valley.”

Washington Prime CEO Lou Conforti told the crowd that the project was years in the making and took a great deal of teamwork. “This was such a collective effort,” he said. “You guys deserve this. This is what makes a community.”

Boardman Township Trustee Larry Moliterno praised the collaborative efforts of all entities in the township to complete the project. “This is a testament that business, government, and organized labor can work collaboratively for the resurgence of a community,” he said.

For DeBartolo York, the evening will stand as a commemoration of her parents and family, whom she says instilled strong values steeped in service and giving back.

“This is a night that I’ll never forget,” she said. “You’ve brought back so many memories. I’m really lucky that I had two parents that were driven, and I’m trying to be the same kind of parent. God blessed me so I could bless others.”

Pictured at top: Boardman Township Trustee Larry Moliterno, Southern Park Mall Manager Brian Gabbert and Denise DeBartolo York cut the ribbon Friday evening to open DeBartolo Commons.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.