(This is the first in a three part series examining the history, present and possible future of what is today one of Sanford’s most blighted commercial properties.)

As it stands today, the Kendale Plaza shopping center in Jonesboro is seen by most as a blight and an eyesore – the broken windows, the multiple vacant storefronts, the full third of the property that’s chained off and unoccupied all combine to create a huge problem for business, for the public sector, and the people who live in the neighborhood.

Your memories of the property are likely informed by your age. If you’re a teenager or in your early 20s, the only Kendale you’ve ever known is the current one. If you’re a little older, say, in your 30s or 40s, your memories might include being taken there by your parents as a child, or “cruising” the parking lot on weekends in the late 70s and early 80s, eating at restaurants like Grace’s Little Italy or the Southwest Grill, or seeing new movies for a buck in the 1990s.

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If you’re older than that, you might remember when the place opened to great local fanfare, billing itself as the longest shopping center in North Carolina and promising to change the way commerce took place in Sanford and Lee County.

The story of Kendale Plaza is similar to many other small town shopping centers whose “good ol’ days” seem to have come and gone. But they say that even if history doesn’t repeat itself, it does often rhyme – so with Downtown Sanford in the midst of a renaissance and the retail sector booming locally, is there any hope for Kendale?

To find an answer to the question of Kendale’s future, it might help first to look at the story of Kendale’s past.

An aerial view of Jonesboro in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Kendale Plaza now stands on three of the tracts in the bottom left quadrant. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Haire.

When P.K. Buchanan bought the three rural tracts that would become Kendale Plaza in the early 1960s, he apparently promised to create something of a sea change in the local shopping scene.

“(Buchanan) said somewhat famously, on the front page of the Sanford Herald, that he was going to make grass grow in the sidewalks on Steele Street,” said Bob Joyce, Lee County’s economic development director, explaining that Buchanan’s ability to drive a hard bargain brought multiple businesses to the new shopping center whether they’d originally wanted to be there or not. “He went to the owner of the Wilrik Theater and told him ‘I built you a theater to run down here, and if you don’t want to do it, I’ll go find some competition for you and run you out of business.’ He had this persuasive way about him.”

Joyce said that Buchanan’s promise to make grass grow in sidewalks downtown wasn’t far off the mark. Within a few years, much of downtown’s commerce had shifted southeast to Kendale and its acres upon acres of free parking.

Kendale’s parking lot was nearly full at its grand opening in 1964. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Haire.

“In the 60s, it was a beautiful center,” Joyce said. “There were fountains and benches and trees in the insets. It was nice, and it really did impact downtown.”

And for the next 20 or so years, Kendale was king in Sanford. But it wouldn’t last. Although all three blocks of the plaza remained open as recently as a decade ago, the first big blow came when Riverbirch Corner in opened in west Sanford in the mid 1980s.

“By the time (Riverbirch) was completed, Kendale was 30 years old, and showing some wear,” Joyce said. “And (Buchanan) was gone by then, and I believe by that time someone else owned Kendale anyway.”

There were more blows – the old Wal Mart shopping center opened in the early 90s, driving more traffic away (Joyce called that turn of events “literally what killed Kendale”), and Spring Lane Cinemas set up shop in the mid 2000s, quickly running the dollar movie theater on Kendale’s south end from the market.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Haire.

Today, it’s 54 percent occupied, with the bottom third inaccessible and without any tenants. There remains a Sears, a Family Dollar, an Advance Auto, and a handful of other small businesses, beauty salons and rental centers. But the broken windows, the parking lot full of potholes, the fence surrounding a full acre of waist-high weeds, have most in agreement that something – condemnation, demolition, anything at all – needs to be done.

Well, something is going to be done. It’s just a question of what.

Kendale Plaza is for sale.

We look at the details, and what they might mean for the future of the shopping center and the neighborhood surrounding it in part two of this series, which you can read here.