The Mall of America

Published 8:06 pm Tuesday, September 21, 2010

While visiting Minnesota this week, I could see the Mall of America outside my hotel window.

While shopping is not a favorite pastime of mine, it seemed that I should take a quick visit to this famous shopping venue.

I was aware that it had an indoor theme park and was the largest mall in America. I had grown up visiting Lenox Square in Atlanta and envisioned a slightly larger version. After all, there can’t be more than 200 stores that you could put under one roof, right?

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More than 500 stores are located in this mega-mall. It is the largest mall in terms of retail space in the United States, second in North America only to the West Edmonton Canada mall in terms of space under one roof.

Frankly, I was somewhat blown away by the sheer size of the place. In addition to the 500+ retail outlets, the largest indoor amusement park in the country is located in the middle of all the stores. Nickelodeon Universe contains two roller coasters, a water ride, roller coaster and too many other rides to mention.

With a glass-covered roof, it contains an abundant amount of natural plants. The aquarium features more than 4,500 creatures from the sea, including sharks, turtles and sting rays. On the fourth level, there is a theater showing 14 of the latest feature films.

The directory of the mall has to be shown on three sides of a display to include all of the stores. Televisions are hung above the directories showing advertisements of establishments throughout the mall.

Built in 1992, the mall remains fresh and new with its huge selection of stores to pick from. The latest of technology is featured everywhere. There are more than 20 restaurants located in the “MOA” as the Mall of America is often called. With more than 20,000 parking spaces in its two parking decks, there are plenty of patrons to fill the many eating establishments.

Amazingly, there is no heat in the vast space except at the two main entrances. The sunshine shining through the enormous glass ceiling combined with the huge numbers of people inside at any given time heats the space. How many people? More than 40 million visitors a year at last count.

The mall is built on the site of the old Metropolitan Stadium, for many years the home of the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins. A plaque in the amusement park indicates the location of home plate in the old baseball park.

Can a mall get any bigger?

You bet.

This mall doesn’t even rank in the top 10 largest malls in the world. The largest mall, located in the United Arab Emirates, contains more than twice as many retail outlets at the Mall of America. With more than 1,200 stores, a 22-screen movie theater, and a five-star hotel, the Dubai Mall could keep even the most active shopaholic busy for days.

Reflecting the shift in global economic power, seven of the largest malls are now located in Asia, where land is cheap, labor cost is low, and the growing middle class has money to spend. In fact, in a country known for its shopping excesses, not one of the 10 largest malls is now located in the United States.

Ironically, the first enclosed shopping mall ever build was also in the Minneapolis area in 1956. It was constructed to give merchants more shopping days during the cold, winter months.

The idea of enclosed malls came from the old, covered marketplaces popular from the 10th to 15th centuries. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was built after the Ottoman conquest. It grew over time to include an area covering more than 50 streets with literally thousands of shops selling their goods. It still exists today and is very much a part of the commerce of this ancient but thriving city.

Malls are declining in popularity in the United States, being replaced by giant strip centers anchored by big box tenants and retailers. Some of the largest mall operators in the country have filed for bankruptcy in this economic downturn. No new enclosed mall has been built in the United States since 2006.

Department stores, mostly built as anchors of malls over the past 30 years, are also declining in popularity. Less than 50 percent of the American public visited a department store in the past year, while almost 75 percent visited a Wal-Mart.

Combine these changing trends with the explosion of Internet shopping and you realize that malls are likely to continue to struggle. For all the joys of shopping online, I can’t help but mourn the loss that today’s teenagers will experience.

In my day, everyone old enough to drive wanted to be at Northside Mall in Dothan, often driving around and around the building just to be seen. It was a safe place to be dropped off if you weren’t able to drive and didn’t want to admit your age.

It was the place where boys and girls learned to socialize in public without their parents. It was a shopping destination and a hangout at the same time.

Reflective of our times, the mall has partially been torn down to accommodate a new Publix grocery store. Another part had already been removed to house a Home Depot.

As I watched young couples holding hands and strolling around the Mall of America, I couldn’t help but be taken back to those days of my youth. Despite the sheer size of the place, these young people were sharing a world all their own. You can’t do that on the Internet.