- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS | When Lisa Gross and her two daughters make their twice-annual trek to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, they have three things on their must-do list: visit relatives, catch up with friends and hit the Mall of America.

“I pack an empty suitcase to bring things back,” said Mrs. Gross, a resident of Clarksville, Md.

The self-proclaimed foodies scour the king-sized mall searching for the newest, most unusual and best eateries as they rush from store to store. Mall security keeps them feeling safe, a huge plus for the trio.

“It’s a combination of being really comfortable to shop, and there are some stores that are different,” Mrs. Gross said. Her daughters Sara, 18, and Allison, 16, “could spend the whole day there.”

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The Mall of America is decked out for the holidays, starting with Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year nationwide. To accomplish a makeover involving more than 21 miles of twinkling LED lights and two 44-foot Christmas trees in the Best Buy Rotunda, 10 decorators, a construction company and the mall’s maintenance department have worked full time since October to ready the mall for shoppers by Black Friday.

The 17-year-old MOA, as Minnesotans like to call the sprawling mall, keeps folks like the Grosses coming back in droves - upward of 40 million people a year, to be exact - even as other malls across the country struggle through the deepest recession in decades.

What helps maintain a steady stream of customers from around the world may be the Mall of America’s covered parking in one of the nation’s coldest cities, the constantly changing promotions and an internal amusement park.

Nationwide, mall sales have fallen 6 percent since 2007, said Malachy Kavanagh, staff vice president of communications and external relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers, based in New York.

In contrast, the 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America plans to more than double its size.

The mall reported higher sales through August, although the increase was a modest 1 percent.

“I don’t think it’s just one thing. … We constantly add new things and try to have something for everyone,” said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the mall. “We’re not recession-proof; we’re recession-resistant.”

November traffic at the MOA is up 5 percent, and “we think that trend will continue,” Ms. Bausch said, with more than 125,000 visitors expected to show up just on Black Friday. “Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, more than 16 million guests will visit the mall.”

The mall has thrived in other economic downturns. It was built during a recession and has withstood two more since it opened in 1992. The worst blow came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which caused air travel to plummet. Tourists made up 50 percent of MOA’s visitors at that time, she said.

To make up for the loss, the mall launched an advertising campaign to attract local motorists - everyone within a 150-mile radius, Ms. Bausch said. When air travel picked up again, “it was all extra.”

Today, mall traffic is 60 percent local and 40 percent tourists, with 6 percent of the tourists coming from other countries.

Before the mall opened, many considered it a crackpot idea. Today, it is a global destination recognized for innovative ideas such as building Nickelodeon Universe, the huge amusement park in the middle of the four-level mall.

“It consistently ranks in the top three to five destinations, up there with Disney and Universal Studios,” Ms. Bausch said.

Judy Sullivan, from Edina, Minn., a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis, has frequented the MOA since it opened. Much of the mall’s parking is covered, and that is a huge benefit to Ms. Sullivan.

During Minnesota’s long winters, she can relax inside the mall knowing that when she leaves, she will not have to deal with a car covered in snow and ice. With 12,550 parking spaces, it is seldom difficult for her to find a spot, but she cautions, “It is important to remember where you parked.”

The MOA’s draw is enhanced by its availability - just off Interstate 494 and about 1 1/2 miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Light rail links it to downtown Minneapolis, and buses connect the mall with all of the Twin Cities area.

But many malls are not making it through these hard times.

Landmark Mall in Alexandria was built in 1965 and remained vibrant until about 10 years ago. Val Hawkins, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said that although Macy’s and Sears are still open, the mall is not viable in its current state. Failure to keep the mall updated has contributed to its decline.

The Eastland Mall in Charlotte, N.C., which opened in 1975, has gone downhill since its heyday. With just one anchor store remaining, Burlington Coat Factory, there is talk in Charlotte of tearing it down and converting the site into a community center.

Century Plaza Mall in Birmingham, Ala., lost the last of four anchor stores - Sears - early this year. The inevitable closing after losing the cornerstone giant came in June.

Inside the sprawling MOA, there are 520 retail stores, from high end to the unusual, such as the for-profit Chapel of Love, where 5,300 people have been married in the 15 years it has been open. Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Sears anchor the mall’s four corners.

In addition to an amusement park, there are 14 other oft-changing attractions, such as the new MagiQuest, which offers a live experience for children akin to Harry Potter. “We continually monitor how our attractions are doing,” Ms. Bausch said.

To try to ensure traffic, the MOA’s event calendar includes Toddler Tuesdays, MOA music and visiting stars. A trend panel consisting of teens and young adults keeps the young set involved.

Walking clubs, membership in the Executive Center Preferred Club for those who like to relax at the mall (for a hefty fee), and teen community service volunteers are also part of the MOA draw.

Phase II, however, will have to wait for a while. It will be in the planning stages for the next 12 months.

The holdup is that “financing is so very difficult to obtain,” Ms. Bausch said. “Had we been under construction, there would be 7,000 people working right now.”

In the works for the addition - which could be as large as 4.6 million square feet - are retail shops including a Bass Pro Shop, a 4,800-seat luxury performing arts center, a water park, an ice rink, hotels, restaurants and perhaps most surprising of all, a Mayo Clinic facility.

Dr. David Herman, an ophthalmologist at Mayo and a member of its executive board, confirmed it has signed a letter of intent to be part of the MOA expansion.

Dr. Herman sees the MOA as a way to move health care beyond the walls of hospitals and clinics, envisioning health coaches guiding individuals to cope with their unique health issues, such as weight control, before they become ill.

The facility will not replicate services at the clinic. Dr. Herman said, “We won’t be doing heart surgery, but we are not ruling out anything yet.”

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