Shopping Minnesota

The supersized Mall of America is a destination for 40 million people each year, but plenty of visitors are sold on nearby Minneapolis as well.

Cover Story

August 21, 2005|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

This isn't a tale of two cities. Not exactly. It's not even a tale of Twin Cities, which will probably miff St. Paul -- but, St. Paul, we'll make it up to you someday.

This is about Minneapolis and the Mall of America.

Minneapolis has 30 live theater venues, including two that have won Tonys: the Guthrie Theater and the Children's Theatre Company.

The mall has 32 shoe stores -- not counting the four major department stores that also sell men's and women's apparel.

Minneapolis has the expanded Walker Art Center, the Weisman Art Museum (building by Frank Gehry), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, rehabbed movie palaces, jazz clubs, rock clubs and, downtown alone, 70 "tablecloth" restaurants, including fancy chains and dazzling independents. And it has the Mississippi River.

The mall has (a partial list) McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, KFC, Taco Bell, Panda Express, Sbarro, Subway, A&W, Cousins Subs, Orange Julius, Dairy Queen, Cinnabon, Krispy Kreme, Long John Silver's, three Caribou Coffees and a Starbucks.

No wonder 40 million people, 40 percent of them from out of town, come to the Mall of America every year.

No wonder more people live in a revitalized downtown Minneapolis today than, we're told, live in downtown Denver, Dallas, Houston and Indianapolis combined.

No wonder some people who adore one abhor the other.

"I've never been there," says Donna Dralle, a graphic artist who has lived in the city for 20 years, of the Mall of America, "and I'm very proud of that.

"It's just a big mall. It's the same stores as any other mall, pretty much."

Not to Ashli Hessel.

"This is the biggest one in the country!" says Ashli, who is 15, from North Barrington, Ill., and who is here with her mom for the weekend to do nothing but shop. "And there's no sales tax on clothes here!"

Or on shoes!

Can't the mall, in south suburban Bloomington, and the larger Twin City just get along? Actually, they sort of do.

These days, there's even a cheap train connecting the Land of the Multiple Foot Locker to the Cultural Capital of This Part of the Upper Midwest. Which, these days, makes visiting both on one trip -- yes, both -- one of the more pleasurable ways to spend a weekend in the Midwest.

It's been an interesting journey to detente on the prairie. Let's jet back to August 1992, when the mall opened its many, many, many doors for business.

"It scared the heck out of everybody here," says Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

But "what it has done," says mall spokesman Doug Killian, "is brought more people into the region -- to shop here and do other things here. It's really expanded the market for all of us, but it was very difficult to foresee that."

Here's a hint of what Killian's talking about. "We asked the cab driver which are the most famous things to see here," said Marc Stuifzand, visiting on business from Utrecht, Netherlands, as he meandered wide-eyed through the mall's Camp Snoopy amusements, "and this popped up first as the main thing people must see. It's kind of nice. It's big."

But Stuifzand, along with about 6,000 other conventioneers in Minnesota this day courtesy of Microsoft, was staying and dining and, possibly, enjoying libations and maybe a show, in downtown Minneapolis. Between corporate pep talks, he could shop Marshall Field's and Neiman Marcus and dozens of other stores in downtown Minneapolis, or gaze at an absurd sculpture of an oversize spoon and cherry.

Or head back to the mall, 35 minutes and $1.50 away via the spiffy new Hiawatha Light Rail, and enjoy a Pronto Pup, which likely is hard to find in Utrecht.

520 stores, all indoors

OK, here's what we're dealing with:

The Mall of America is 520 stores, give or take a couple, plus restaurants (including, OK, some with tablecloths), on four levels. It is the largest indoor mall in America.

The people who run the place love stats like these: Seven Yankee Stadiums could fit inside the thing, as could 32 Boeing 747s, though presumably not with the ballparks.

The mall, from a loon's-eye-view, is in four quadrants, each anchored by department stores: Nordstrom, Sears, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, one in each corner. In the middle of all this -- again, this is all indoors -- is Camp Snoopy, an amusement park with food and other things to buy, including, of course, stuffed Snoopys.

The rides, 21 in all, don't match Six Flags / Cedar Point in scream factor, but a couple will get your attention, notably an evil little swiveling coaster called the Timberland Twister. Most of the rest rotate or glide gently enough to keep the funnel cakes safely inside the little ones. Yes, there is a charge for the rides.

Branching out from that center core are stacks of stores. They're all here, most of them, from Abercrombie to Zumiez. If you live near a metropolitan area big enough to have a Gap, most of the retailers can be found in a mall near you. That seems to matter to no one.

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