BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Connie and Bill Barnes and their two teen-age "I love to shop" daughters will pile into the family car next month for the 10-hour trek here from their home in Topeka, Kan., to buy school clothes.
In northeastern Montana, farmers Elizabeth and Carl Sauskojus, who have to drive 60 miles just to get groceries, are laying plans for a 700-mile pilgrimage to Bloomington to explore the exotic new department stores.
From across Japan, 60 tour groups have already booked rooms for this year in Bloomington, a serendipitous stopover on Northwest Airlines' popular Tokyo-to-Disney World flight. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, White Owl Tours has doubled its business to these parts.
And 11 women friends from Huntington Beach, Calif., Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Tucson, Ariz., Naples, Fla., and Appleton, Wis. -- reunited via Christmas letter by Jean Springrose of Columbia, Md. -- will soon converge on Bloomington to renew old ties against a backdrop of power shopping.
Mrs. Springrose, a real estate agent, figures to spend about $1,000 for school clothes and $2,500 on Christmas. "I'm real excited," she says.
From Tokyo to Columbia, they are all headed for the Mall of America, a grandiose and risky marriage of unfettered consumption and thrill-a-minute recreation that has arisen against heavy odds in this suburb of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
In a nation already malled to its knees, with the 1980s done and gone and people declaring they want simpler lives and shorter shopping trips, the Mall of America presumes to reinvent the way people spend time -- melding shopping and organized "fun" on a scale dramatically greater than the formulaic shopping malls that already cover about 4.6 billion square feet of American soil.
Where this mega-mall will lead America remains to be seen, but the stakes are clear: More than half a billion schoolteacher pension dollars are being sunk into it. And if expectations are met, it will draw more people than any attraction in the nation -- more than Disney World and Disneyland combined.
Now, after seven years of controversy, a tough recession and a scaling back of its original leviathan blueprint to a merely Titanic scope, the $625-million project is rushing headlong toward an Aug. 11 opening, and its siren call is heard around the globe.
It will be the nation's largest shopping and entertainment complex with the nation's largest indoor amusement park, the world's largest parking ramp, the world's largest indoor planting of live shrubs, the world's largest indoor miniature golf course, and arguably the world's largest concentration of Tivoli lights. It has Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Macy's -- all new to this neck of the woods.
In the mall's center, where in simpler times one might have found a grade school art show, stands a seven-acre amusement park called Knott's Camp Snoopy. It is the first venture outside of California for the family that created Knott's Berry Farm. The roller coaster is outfitted with silicone wheels so that shoppers don't have to yell to be heard.
The mall has a public school to serve the offspring of its 10,000 employees. It has its own doctors, dentists, sports bars, police station, ZIP code, and a nightclub district with an Australian beach club. There are 14 movie theaters and 46 places to eat. There's a store that sells mounted butterflies and a store with half a basketball court and a boxing ring. There is a giant fantasy factory made of Lego blocks. And there are four "family rooms" with televisions and microwave ovens where everyone can go to decompress.
The fruition of this vast project despite a one-legged economy raises a question as the shopping century winds down: Where will it all end? Asked about the new hyper-mall, Garrison Keillor, the author and radio philosopher-humorist who created Minnesota's fictional Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, said:
"Minnesota is where the shopping mall was invented, so it's natural that the biggest one should be there . . . but some people disappear in them and never come out, thousands in Minnesota alone, and the Mall of America is going to triple the toll."
Peoples' souls aside, this is a serious business deal with a lot at stake, notably the money being put up by the giant pension fund Teachers Insurance & Annuity Association of America, the 55 percent owner with Melvin Simon & Associates, an Indianapolis-based developer, and partner Triple Five Corp. of Edmonton, Alberta.
The collaborators think this is such a great concept that it will bring in $700 million in sales this year alone and eventually attract 46 million visitors a year. A dubious claim to some, that would easily make it the biggest single attraction of any kind in the nation, half again as big as Disney World.
As such, it is being watched closely in the worlds of real estate, shopping and entertainment as a glimpse of the 21st century.