Shop for the fun of it

Malls: The line between shopping and entertainment is often blurred at the new Mills Corp. malls

Anne Arundel County will have a groundbreaking for one Thursday.

July 11, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- At Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a store the size of a Wal-Mart, fishing rods by the hundreds point skyward from their shelves, catfish wind their way through an indoor pond, shiny powerboats spin on revolving stands and golfers practice swings on a putting green.

But none of that mattered to 9-year-old Tyler McConnell, who cared only about hitting a bull's eye in the Old West Shootn' Arcade. With his father's help, Tyler gripped one of the arcade's laser guns, peered at mechanical wild animals running amok through an old log cabin and squeezed the trigger, adding to the cacophony of pings and screeches.

"He loves it," said his mother, Cheryl McConnell, and it's OK by her, too. "It's entertainment for the kids while the parents shop" -- or play. "The men are just like big children," she noted, watching her husband, Harry, and other excited, crouching fathers.

FOR THE RECORD - In a photo caption published in The Sun's Business section on Sunday, Laurence C. Siegel, chief executive officer of Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp., and Dennis Connolly, senior development director, were misidentified. Siegel was on the left in the photo, Connolly on the right. The Sun regrets the error.

Like many retailers at 2-year-old Grapevine Mills megamall here, Bass Pro, one of the newest anchors, has blurred the line between retail and entertainment. The ability to entertain has made the outdoor sports superstore the top attraction in its home state of Missouri but also has made it a good fit for the Mills Corp.'s style of mall. Mills, which has built Grapevine and seven similar hybrids across the country, will break ground Thursday near Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Arundel Mills, a $250 million project similar to Grapevine.

The Bass Pro experience embodies all that Mills wants shoppers to get from trips to the centers it is opening at a rate of two a year: a stimulating, interactive environment; large variety and selection; and, often, discounted prices.

"We've realized the consumer needs to be entertained when they're out shopping," said Laurence C. Siegel, chief executive officer of Mills, which is based in Arlington, Va. "There are only so many consumer dollars, and the guy who's going to win is the guy who entertains the shopper the best. Developers re-create the same shopping experience every five to 10 miles. We create a new retail experience."

That experience, a mix of manufacturer outlets, off-price stores and conventional mall tenants, plus a heavy dose of entertainment, encourages spending more time and money, Siegel said. Mills malls have proved to be powerful draws for tour groups and others who often drive hours to reach them. Malls in Virginia, Florida and California attract as many as 23 million visitors annually and have become among those states' top tourist attractions.

In Grapevine, a city of 39,000 in booming north Texas between Dallas and Fort Worth, the Mills mall has helped put the city on the map, say city officials, business owners and residents. Visitors no longer call the area "Dallas."

The mall, three miles from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on a site long planned for warehouse development, has given Grapevine a boost it never conceived of a decade ago. With 14 million visitors in the mall's first year, tourism has swelled. Sales taxes pump $3.5 million to $4 million yearly into city coffers.

Hotel planned

The mall has helped spur road improvements and restaurants and hotels, including a 1,500-room Opryland hotel and convention center to be built nearby. Despite the Mills opening, and a 15 percent drop in sales at the closest regional mall, three malls are planned in cities near Grapevine, with several others planning expansions.

Though some business people in the city's well-preserved, turn-of-the-century Main Street grumble that the city has promoted the mall rather than the older downtown, others say more tourists have meant more business for the small shops, restaurants and services or at least haven't hurt sales.

The mall "hasn't sucked away the character and nature of Grapevine," said Roger Nelson, city manager. "Main Street is still there and doing better than before."

Tour buses abundant

The city also has seen its convention and tour business jump, with the number of tour buses swelling from about 20 a year to about 600, said Paul W. McCallum, executive director of the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"They probably wouldn't have come this way before the mall," McCallum said.

Analysts project similar results from Arundel Mills, expected to perform at least as well as Mills' second-most successful project, Ontario Mills in California, which draws 18.1 million people a year -- more than Disneyland -- and boasts above-industry-average sales of $350 per square foot.

In a report last year, Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. of Baltimore called Mills' format "the growth prospect in an overbuilt retail real estate industry," with the ability to attract strong tenants, add entertainment and develop new projects.

Tourist traffic

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