BLOOMINGTON, MINN. -- When the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins abandoned the Metropolitan Stadium here for the brand new Minneapolis Metrodome in 1978, Don Groen was "completely devastated."
After five years of struggling to save the stadium, "we lost, and at the time, we thought we lost big. Cities pride themselves on having one sports team, we had two," said Groen, president of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.
But he and others in this town 10 miles outside Minneapolis did not give up. They bounced back with a plan for the biggest shopping mall in the country. "Something that would be occupied 365 days a year, not just 80 or 100," Groen said.
Mall of America will be a 2.6 million-square-foot testament by a town that won't be outdone. When completed in 1992, the combination retail and family entertainment complex being built at the old stadium site will have retail space nearly equal to the combined space of Northern Virginia's Tysons II Galleria and Tysons Corner Center. When office space and a 1,000-room hotel are added in the next phase, the entire complex will sprawl over 9.5 million square feet.
With 14 other area malls and several sleek new marble and glass retail complexes in downtown Minneapolis that have increased the city's total retail space to 2.2 million square feet, skeptics have questioned whether Midwesterners need a $625 million shopping center with 12,000 parking spaces.
"Downtown Minneapolis spent a great deal of effort and money in negative support of this effort to do whatever could be done to slow it down or stop it," said Larry Lee, Bloomington's director of community development.
Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser said tensions have cooled since the recent opening of the Minneapolis Convention Center. The original mall plan included a convention center, "and that was what the real tug of war was about," Fraser said.
Members of the Ghermazian family of the Triple Five Corp. in Edmonton, Alberta, are the masterminds behind Mall of America. The four brothers also own West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, the world's largest shopping center.
Four department stores -- Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom and Sears -- will anchor the Mall of America and its 400 specialty stores. An entertainment wing will house 18 theaters, sports clubs, comedy clubs and nightclubs.
In the middle of it all will be a 1.2million-gallon aquarium and Knott's Camp Snoopy, a seven-acre amusement park managed by Knott's Berry Farm of Buena Park, Calif. The 25-ride theme park will feature characters from the Peanuts comic strip, whose creator, Charles Schulz, is from Minnesota.
Mention the "brothers" here and Bloomingtonians automatically know you are speaking of the Ghermazians. Their flamboyant style and larger-than-life approach to the mall project caught some staid Midwesterners off guard. Others scoffed at the Ghermazians's offer to make Mall of America "the eighth wonder of the world," a place where "people will come from Paris to shop."
"Minnesotans have a fairly conservative approach to how business should be conducted," said Bloomington Mayor NealPeterson. "It took a little time to accept their style."
The Ghermazians formed a 50-50 joint venture partnership with developers Herbert and Melvin Simon of Indianapolis, who have pulled together the $625 million to finance the project. Mitsubishi Bank Ltd. and Mitsui Trust & Banking Co. each underwrote $150 million, $75 million of which the Simons personally guaranteed. Chuo Trust & Banking Ltd. underwrote $100 million and Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of New York put up $225 million. Initial community support for the project helped guarantee more than $150 million in bond issues, which paid for parking, new roads around the complex and the $25.5 million cost of the stadium site.
Tad Hamada, senior vice president of Mitsubishi Bank, called the project a good investment because it is a "new creature."
"The biggest factor that sets the project apart is the combination amusement park, aquarium and mall," Hamada said. "Also, the department stores are well-known, but they are still new to the area."
Mall of America spokeswoman Maureen Hooley said Japanese tourists will be likely customers. The hope is that passengers on Northwest Airline's 11-hour nonstop flight from Tokyo to Minneapolis will stop and shop here before going on to other U.S. destinations.
Bonnie Carlson, executive director of the Bloomington Tourism & Convention Bureau, said she is "aggressively marketing" directly to 118 Japanese tour and travel companies.
Area merchants and malls will feel some competition from Mall of America, Groen said. Nicollet Mall, a downtown Minneapolis street of retail and department stores, including a new Saks Fifth Avenue, is spending $21.8 million on renovations.
However, Groen said, "for everyday and weekly shopping, people are still going to go to their neighborhood mall, especially if those malls become nicer. Mall of America is somewhere you go to spend a day."
Rafael Ghermazian said the key to the mall's appeal will be an aggressive marketing campaign targeted at shoppers in smaller communities in the five states around Minnesota who will be encouraged to make a one- or two-day trip to the mall for shopping and entertainment.
Bloomington was chosen as a mall site because it very closely matched the Edmonton prototype as far as weather and demographics, Ghermazian said. "But a 200- to 300-mile radius in Edmonton yields about 1 million people; in Bloomington the population is about 40 million in a five-state radius."
He said, "We're convinced that the project will be at least three to four times as successful as the one in Edmonton. Whoever is going to drive 100 or 200 miles comes to do some serious shopping, and the buying power will be much greater than the average guy who shops once a week."
Jim McComb, a Minneapolis retail analyst, questioned the buying power of the target audience. He said the average annual income in the Upper Midwest is about $24,000, compared with the Twin Cities annual income of about $41,000 and a national average of about $28,000.
"It's more likely that out-state people will come to the mall to go the amusement park and the aquarium, but they are not Bloomingdale's or Macy's shoppers," McComb said. "They are more likely to say, 'This is nice, but it's pretty expensive.' "
McComb believes the mall is a "culmination of the excesses of the '80s; '90s consumers are going to have more conservative, traditional values."
Mall of America builders believe otherwise. A new brochure chronicles the mall's "historic proportions," saying, "Not only is Mall of America the biggest development in our nation, but it's also the most complex. ... This project demands unprecedented attention."