11th Avenue / US 12 and North Oakes Street
Helena, Montana

The first fully-enclosed shopping mall in the Treasure State held its grand opening March 4, 1965. Developed by the Helena-based Penland Company, CAPITAL HILL CENTER was situated on 13.4 acres, .3 miles northeast of the Montana State House.

Originally encompassing 150,000 leasable square feet and twenty-four stores, the single-level complex was anchored by a 2-level (74,300 square foot), Butte-based Hennessy's. The tenant list included Super Save Drug, Schiff Shoes, Zale's Jewelers and an Albertsons Food Center.

A 100,000 square foot addition was built on the west end of the structure, which included eighteen stores and services. Its 1-level (32,500 square foot) J.C. Penney opened for business September 12, 1984. By this time, the complex was officially known as CAPITAL HILL MALL. It spanned 250,000 leasable square feet and housed forty-one tenant spaces.

The Hennessy's chain had moved its corporate headquarters to Billings, Montana in 1980. The chain had been a division of the Mercantile Stores conglomerate since 1914. After Dillard's bought Mercantile Stores in 1998, all Hennessy's stores came under the Dillard's banner.

Operating as the only fully-enclosed shopping center in -or around- Montana's Queen City, CAPITAL HILL MALL was the region's prominent retail center. It was given face lift refurbishments in 1992 and 2001. Then, new open-air complexes, such as GREAT NORTHERN TOWN CENTER (2002) {in downtown Helena} and SKYWAY CENTER (2007) {1.9 miles north, in Helena} began to dot the landscape.

The outmoded, downtown shopping mall began to falter. Its physical structure was owned by Salt Lake City-based Westfield Properties / WPI Commercial, with 9.7 acres of the site leased by Helena's Intermountain Deaconess Children's Home. By 2007, there were thirty stores in operation, out of a total of forty-two spaces.

A proposal to sell the mall and its acreage had been announced in 2002. The buyer would be the Montana Historical Society, who planned -at first- to renovate the existing shopping center into a Montana State Historical Museum. Eventually, a more ambitious plan was devised, whereby the entire mall would be demolished and replaced with a 29 million dollar museum complex.

The controversial plan was debated for 6 years. In June 2008, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) challenged the citizenry with the daunting task of raising 13 million dollars within five months to keep the museum project alive.

As it turned out, the challenge was not met. On January 16, 2009, it was announced that only $100,000 (of the 13 million) had been raised. The mall-museum project was abandoned, with a site across the street from the existing museum mentioned as a possible location for a new structure.

In May 2010, Dillard's closed its CAPITAL HILL MALL store, which had been enlarged (to approximately 93,800 square feet) by expanding into adjacent store space. Soon after, the shopping center's owner defaulting on their loan payment. An auction was planned for October 2010. It was delayed until November 2010, then until March 2011 and -lastly- until April 2011. This sale ended up being cancelled, as well.

An auction was finally held on the Lewis & Clark County Courthouse steps on August 13, 2013. Los Angeles' City National Bank acquired CAPITAL HILL MALL, which had ten operating tenants. The bank added new landscaping and performed maintenance on the aging property in hopes of reselling it.

With the departure of Leslie's Hallmark and Christopher & Banks, in 2015, the shopping hub was left with just five operational tenants; Lucky Lil's Casino, GNC, American Eye Care, Cliff's Jewelry and J.C. Penney.

By early 2016, this number had dwindled to just three. An eastern section of the interior mallway had been blocked off. Salt Lake City's Kimball Investment Company bought the moribund mall in June 2016.

J.C. Penney announced the shuttering of one hundred and twenty mall-based stores in March 2017. Unfortunately, the CAPITAL MALL location was on the list. A liquidation sale commenced in April 2017, with the store going dark in June. By mid-2018, just Lucky Lil's Casino, a mall tenant since August 1995, was still in operation.


The Independent Record
Comment post by Trevor Westphal