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Four decades of relevancy in the Fox Valley

The Appleton mall will celebrate its milestone anniversary July 18

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May 14, 2024

APPLETON – It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic changed – or at the very least pivoted – how many businesses operate.

Businesses were forced to shut down or close, offer curbside pickup or redesign their facilities to provide less face-to-face contact.

More than four years later, some are still seeing the effects.

One of the hardest hit areas, Shari Schmelebeck – property manager at Brookfield Properties, the organization that manages the Fox River Mall in Appleton – said were businesses working in the retail sector.

“COVID changed how malls operate – it had a huge effect on everything,” she said. “If you think about it, when COVID hit, everything was shut down – we rely on people who visit the mall for our business, and the pandemic temporarily took that away. But, we responded well and recovered strongly.”

Shari Schmelebeck

Schmelebeck said the pandemic forced the mall to close for a couple of months.

“It took time for people to come back – for sure,” she said.

Yet, through it all, Schmelebeck said the Fox River Mall has held strong – on pace to celebrate its 40th year in operation this July.

A look back
Schmelebeck said the mall officially opened to the public July 18, 1984.

“We’re excited to celebrate 40 years,” she said. “We have been a gathering place for 40 years – people come here with their family and friends and make memories year after year. We’re thankful the community has welcomed us and keeps coming back.”

Schmelebeck said as the mall’s onsite manager – a role she’s held for two and a half years (though she’s been with Brookfield Properties for 25 years) – “I’m not bored – there’s plenty to do.”

“I make sure our customers are happy, and I deal with tenant complaints, housekeeping, security – the overall running of the mall,” she said.

Schmelebeck said, “not much is planned for” the mall’s milestone anniversary.

“We’re keeping it small,” she said. “We’ll be doing a full gathering for employees before we open (July 18). We’ll have some cake and have a lot of old employees coming back to help us celebrate.”

Four decades of relevancy
Schmelebeck said the fact that the Fox River Mall draws from a large area “has really helped” the mall continue to thrive.

“Most malls probably draw from an area of 10 to 20 miles,” she said. “We pull from as far as West Bend or even North Milwaukee to the south and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the north – that’s part of why we’ve been able to remain relevant for 40 years.”

After COVID, Schmelebeck said people “wanted their lives back,” and the mall was a great place to gather, shop, eat and people watch – “the perfect blend.”

That statement, she said, still rings true today.

As the Fox River Mall’s food court, Northwoods Caf√© houses a variety of food options. Submitted Photo

“We are a true community-centered mall,” she said. “We focus on getting stores the community wants that are relevant and in demand. We also have great anchor stores – Macy’s, Target, Scheels and JCPenney, to name a few. Last year, we opened Sierra Trading (Post) and J.Crew. We try to stay up on what the community wants to see and where they want to shop. We focus on what will make the community happy when they’re in the mall.”

Weekends, Schmelebeck said, are typically busy at the mall.

“It’s a lot more fun to be at the mall on a weekend,” she laughed. “A lot is going on. We are one of the largest malls in the state (comprised of more than one million square feet), so we’re well represented.”

The future
The increase in online sales, Schmelebeck said, isn’t something the mall “worries about too much.”

“Initially, yes, there was some worry (during COVID that people wouldn’t come back), but we’ve remained strong over the years,” she said. “Most of our stores have both a physical and online presence.”

As for future growth, Schmelebeck said there are no immediate plans to expand – “I’m happy with where we’re at.”

“We are always looking at ways to evolve the center, but right now, I have nothing I can share,” she said.

The Fox River Mall, located at 4301 W. Wisconsin Ave in Appleton, turns 40 this July. The mall officially opened to the public July 18, 1984. This is an aerial shot from opening day almost four decades ago. Submitted Photo

Schmelebeck said that doesn’t mean growth isn’t happening.

“I will say, we are always looking for new merchants so we can stay relevant and maintain that community feel,” she said. “What we’re doing now is working (with) events like the Cirque Italia Water Circus show.”

With the 2025 NFL Draft coming to Green Bay April 24-26, Schmelebeck said that “will be a crazy time.”

“I’m looking forward to that,” she laughed. “I’m sure the mall will be packed.”

For stores and restaurants and to view upcoming events at the mall, visit

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