A shopping mall has turned this cold and windy industrial city on the northern edge of the Canadian prairie into a major tourist attraction, drawing weekend crowds of hundreds of thousands of people from western Canada and the nearby northern plains of the United States.
The spectacle they come to see in this corner of Canada's Siberia is the world's largest shopping center. Under high, vaulted, glass domes, stores ranging from posh Paris boutiques to bargain-basement shops with clothes piled in bins are spread along a two-level, marble-and-brass concourse that runs an entire mile. West Edmonton Mall has 57 entrances and 836 stores -- about 50 more than at Landover, Tysons Corner, White Flint, Montgomery, Springfield and Iverson malls combined.
On a 2.5-acre artificial lake in the shopping center, four dolphins splash playfully. Nearby is a replica of a galleon purporting to be a full-scale model of Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria. The piece de resistance is the $6 amusement ride in one of the mall's four authentic submarines, each outfitted with sonar equipment, underwater cameras and television monitor screens.
Visitors stand in line for two hours to ride in the submarines, which submerge 15 feet through waters infested with live and mechanical sharks and octopuses. The mall has twice as many submarines as the Canadian Navy.
There is an 18-hole miniature golf course, a black wrought-iron and plaster of Paris replica of New Orleans' Bourbon Street with statues of streetwalkers, and a National Hockey League-sized ice rink where hometown superhero Wayne Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers practice. There are movie theaters, video game arcades, automobile showrooms, restaurants, glass cages of Siberian tiger cubs, parakeets and canaries, and more than 50 species of tropical fish on display about the mall.
The audacious vision of a family of Iranian-born emigres who sought fortune in the Canadian west, the mall offers Yves St. Laurent perfume and Cartier boutiques, on a street reminiscent of Paris' fashionable Rue Faubourg du St. Honore, with heavy dollops of Disney and P.T. Barnum. The new concept is expected to spawn imitators and already has added a term to the lexicon: "amusement mall."
"You want to know how it came about?" Nader Ghermezian, one of the four brothers who own the billion-dollar mall, asks in heavily accented English. "We always, from childhood, wanted to do something big and different."
The mall employs 15,000 persons and paid $40 million in taxes to the federal government last year and $29 million to the provincial government, according to corporate spokesmen. They said mall tenants posted average annual sales of $400 per square foot last year, more than double the Canadian industry average. The shopping center has its own tourism budget of $5 million annually, about the same spent by the provincial government.
The family moved to Montreal from Tehran in the 1950s, and the brothers -- Eskander, Raphael, Bahman and Nader, now all in their forties -- worked in their father's carpet import business. They began acquiring thousands of acres of land in western Canada in the 1960s, the decade after oil was discovered in the small community of Leduc, south of Edmonton. After moving to Edmonton in the 1960s, they built offices and apartments before entering the shopping center business.
As the Ghermezians describe it, they originally intended West Edmonton Mall to be a standard shopping center. Its first phase, completed in 1981, was fairly typical, with a supermarket and department stores as anchor tenants. When they decided to nearly double the size of the 1.2 million-square-foot first phase, they wanted their mall to be different. They were enthusiastic when a Toronto landscaper they consulted suggested putting a carousel in the addition.
Eskander Ghermezian went with the consultant to an amusement park in Kansas City, where rides from all over the world were displayed.
"Eskander went crazy," the consultant, Ronald McCarthy, recalls. "He was like a kid in a toy store, running around, laughing and trying to deal on the spot with the ride-makers." That night he phoned his brothers in Edmonton. Nader remembers him saying, " 'Boys, they have different machineries here -- how about we buy this, we buy this,' and within two hours we had bought half the machinery." It was all placed in a 50,000-square-foot amusement corner of the mall.
Six months after the second phase was completed in September 1983, the Ghermezians began planning the next addition. They visited diverse tourist attractions around the world -- Disneyland, Epcot Center, Paris, Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Australia and the Houston space center. They believed that if they could develop the feel of all these places under one roof, tourists would come running -- even to Edmonton.
"In reality, what we have built," Nader Ghermezian said with typically immodest enthusiasm, "is a world within a world. People call it a shopping mall. We call it the eighth wonder of the world."
With the opening of its third phase in September, West Edmonton Mall expanded to 5 million square feet and won two listings in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records -- as the world's largest shopping center and the world's largest parking lot, with space for more than 30,000 cars.
West Edmonton Mall has been featured in a pop sci-fi Marvel Comics book adventure series and is the scene of a forthcoming movie starring Christopher Reeve.
"Wow! That's a shopping center?" asks a comic strip character as she flies into the mall. "I've seen smaller cities."
"Looks like somebody dropped a lid over Disneyland," observes another character, skulking in front of a precise drawing of the mall's fire-breathing fountains. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. With theme parks and shopping malls all the rage, it couldn't have been too long before some bright boy combined the two in a big way."
On fall weekends, more than 400,000 visitors come to the mall, nearly half of them from outside Alberta Province. Some from the United States arrive by private charter airlines, shunning the few other attractions in this city of oil refineries and meatpacking plants to spend an average of about four days at West Edmonton Mall, according to shopper surveys conducted for the center.
Families fill the concourses with platoons of strollers. Parents leave school-age children in amusement areas while they shop. The family might get together for lunch, then the children might go skating. At night, the family might go to a movie in one of the mall's 18 theaters.
Visitors spend an average of about $300. The bread-and-butter customers of the mall are shoppers from northern Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces, who come three or four times a year for major purchases, according to mall officials.
For American visitors, says operations manager Selma Linzer, part of the attraction is the mall's security.
"The inside is a phenomenal thing in people's minds," she said. "People feel much safer when there are doors and a roof.
"Western Canada is probably the archetypical Middle America," she added. "It's safe. It's secure. It's down-home values. It's affordable, and a middle-income person is respected."
The Ghermezians, referred to by employes as "The Brothers," say they have put Edmonton on the map. "We have changed the traffic patterns," said Nader Ghermezian. "People who used to go from eastern Canada to the west of Canada, they used to bypass us. Now they make a detour."
Not all here are grateful. A western Canadian magazine cover story called it the "Monster Mall." Downtown business owners ruefully refer to it as "The Mall That Ate Edmonton."
The Ghermezians counter with statistics to show that, far from killing downtown as critics allege, West Edmonton Mall has been the engine for sharp growth in retail sales in the entire area. One by one, they have silenced opposition among other merchants with special deals to draw them into the mall. To prove further that downtown is still viable, they have made plans for a large new shopping mall there.
As with West Edmonton Mall, they are demanding generous tax concessions from the city and province.
The Ghermezians also are planning a $1 billion, 4 million-square-foot shopping complex on a former stadium site in Bloomington, Minn. It is to include more than 800 shops, a lake with submarines, and theme sections including a replica of a Scandinavian village's town square. It is to adjoin a 1 million-square-foot convention and trade center and 4 million square feet of office and hotel space.
They also are looking for another site for an even larger facility in eastern Canada or the United States.
Meanwhile, laborers are building the next phase of West Edmonton Mall, which is to include a 10-acre lake for water skiing with simulated six-foot waves for surfing.