BLOOMINGTON -- Speaking in the hushed tones common to medical waiting rooms, receptionist Juli Velebir was struggling to sum up just what it is that makes the Mall of America such a dumbfounding and fascinating quirk of modern culture. Then she smiled and nodded.
"Well," Velebir whispered, "you can get homemade apple pie, a vasectomy, and get married, all in the mall. And all in a short afternoon."
Ten years after it opened -- and after almost everyone predicted it would perish swiftly in an ugly retail wreck -- the largest, strangest mall in the United States has not only succeeded, it has boomed.
You can indeed get a little outpatient surgery taken care of at the Quello Clinic, while the kids are riding the Pepsi Ripsaw Roller Coaster at Camp Snoopy amusement park, perhaps, and your spouse is studying accounting at National American University.
Assuming the surgery goes well, you might all be up for a bite at one of 50 restaurants, some shopping at the 520 stores, perhaps topping off the day with a visit to the largest turtle collection in the world.
There are about 46,000 shopping centers in the United States, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The Mall of America stands alone, however, as the temple to modern American consumerism, in all its glory and gaudiness, ingenuity and excess, with all its piles and stacks and storerooms of stuff.
Seven Yankee Stadiums would fit inside the 4.2-million-square-foot behemoth. Theme park visitors had eaten 14,991,360 funnel cakes as of earlier this year.
With 43 million visitors a year, annual sales of about $900 million and an occupancy rate of 99 percent, Mall of America has dramatically changed how malls are conceived and built in the United States and abroad.
It was the first major mall to include high-end anchor stores, such as Nordstrom, and discounters such as Marshall's, sometimes just a few doors away from each other. It provided incubation for upstart retailers, helping them with everything from floor-plan design to marketing, and organized tour packages for out-of-towners.
Most notably, however, the mall's developers bet early on that shoppers did not necessarily want only to shop when they went to the mall. They would, the developers predicted, come for entertainment as well.
With Camp Snoopy and its 30 rides as the entertainment anchor, developers added several nightclubs, the Lego Imagination Center -- from which 156,000 Lego blocks have vanished -- a neon-blue-hued bowling alley. Over the years they offered live concerts by such performers as 'N Sync and Aerosmith, built NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway, and installed a 1.2-million-gallon aquarium containing 65 sharks and 2,900 other creatures.
"We opened a mall," said spokeswoman Monica Davis, "but we grew into an attraction."
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Today, Mall of America lures more visitors annually than the Grand Canyon, Graceland and Disney World combined. And about 40 percent of those people are considered tourists, meaning they have traveled more than 150 miles to get here. About 6 percent of those have come from other countries.
Now the mall is planning to expand, more than doubling in size, by adding what officials hope will be complementary rather than competitive projects, such as hotels, office space, perhaps a luxury spa. Plans call for a 5.7-million-square-foot development on 44 acres just north of the mall, with groundbreaking slated for 2003 or 2004.
In 1985, this suburb about 10 miles south of downtown Minneapolis found itself with a giant parking lot and an empty Metropolitan Stadium after the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings headed to the new Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. A study vaguely suggested the property, just four miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, be developed as a mixed-use site.
Then a company named Triple Five invited city officials to visit its West Edmonton Mall in Canada, with 5.3 million square feet the largest mall in the world.
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