This series appeared on page A1 of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead from July 30-August 2, 2012. Read the entire series as a Kindle e-book here.
PART 1: ‘WHAT’S A SHOPPING CENTER?’: Vision, verve turned remote field into Fargo’s retail giant
One day in the late 1960s, a stranger – tall, dapper and driving a Buick Riviera – followed the dust and dirt of 13th Avenue South to the Rabanus family farm.
The man introduced himself as Bill Schlossman, a Fargo businessman and developer. He took a seat at the table and told Carl Rabanus, who had farmed the land for decades, that he wanted to buy part of it to build a shopping center.
Rabanus wasn’t entirely sure what Schlossman was talking about.
“It was all so new to him,” said Herman Rabanus, Carl’s son, a young man at the time. “We had never done anything really like that, selling stuff to a developer.”
And like most North Dakotans of their day, they’d never had much to do with a shopping mall.
Their farmstead was a mile outside of town. With the exception of Interstate 29 and a nearby set of railroad tracks, there was little evidence to suggest untapped commercial potential, let alone an impending development boom that would upend the geography of the city for good.
“There wasn’t anything out there,” said Randy Johnson, a young contractor at the time who is today one of the mall’s owners. “It was all dirt roads and a big field.”
That’s what most people saw, anyway. Bill Schlossman saw something else.
A budding concept
The Southdale Center, the first shopping mall as we know them today, sprung up in Edina, Minn., in 1956. It was the creation of Victor Gruen, an Austrian immigrant who envisioned the center as an antidote to a perceived lack of public spaces in America.
Decades later, Gruen, a reputed socialist, would renounce the concept as an unchecked commercial leviathan responsible for the erosion of city centers.
But Southdale was still hailed as a groundbreaking prototype that got many things – a navigable layout, attractive storefronts, climate control – right on the first try.
About a decade after the center opened, a shopping mall building boom began in earnest. But in the mid-1960s, it had not yet reached Fargo, which had only a few strip malls. The heart of retail in the city was still the Black Building, a mainstay of Broadway since 1931.
The building was the work of George M. Black, the Fargo development and retail guru who built the building and managed its centerpiece tenant, Sears, for the first few years.
At the time, the building was itself a marvel of commerce and engineering – the second-tallest building in the state behind the Capitol, the bearer of North Dakota’s largest neon sign, and the home to everything from fruit brokers to chiropractors to WDAY Radio.
But by 1966, Sears had outgrown its confines, and the building had no more room to accommodate expansion. Bill Schlossman, George Black’s son-in-law, who was managing the building and other downtown properties, started looking for a new home to bring the department store and a handful of other scattered shops together in one location.
Location, location ...
A champion of downtown business, Schlossman first proposed a shopping center at the foot of Broadway, near the current location of the YMCA’s Fercho Branch and the Fargo High Rise tower.
But the city turned him and his partners down in favor of other projects. Brad Schlossman, Bill’s son and the current chief executive of West Acres Development, said the rejection was likely a blessing.
“Right now, this would be on deadmalls.com,” Brad Schlossman said, referring to a website that catalogs failed shopping centers. The space “is nowhere near big enough, and then the accessibility would have been a problem.”
Spurned by Fargo, Bill Schlossman briefly considered turning to Moorhead, and eyed a location at the intersection of Interstate 94 and Highway 75. But his wife, Anna Jane Schlossman, wouldn’t hear of it.
“Mrs. Schlossman didn’t like that because her roots were in North Dakota,” said Fred Anderson, the first manager of West Acres. “She said, ‘We are North Dakota people, so we will stay in North Dakota.’ ”
Around the same time, an engineering and landuse study of the Fargo-Moorhead area came out. It concluded the best place for a shopping center would be the intersection of interstates 29 and 94. It was the only place in the state where two interstate highways met.
“I thought, ‘If that kind of expertise says so, I’d better prick my ears and listen,’ ” Bill Schlossman told The Forum in a 1987 interview.
He envisioned a regional shopping hub fueled by the convergent pipelines of interstate traffic. He envisioned visitors and dollars flowing in from greater North Dakota, Minnesota and beyond, rather than flowing out to better shopping options in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He envisioned an amenities and jobs magnet that would make young people think twice before moving away.
So he hopped in his Riviera, headed to the Rabanus farm, which included the land in question, and made an offer.
Stumbling to the start
That was the easy part. Getting the shopping center up and running proved more challenging, particularly amid doubts the idea was going to bear fruit.
“People thought he was crazy,” Brad Schlossman said of his father. “Most of the backroom conversations were that it was going to fail.”
Local merchants accustomed to doing business downtown were hesitant to move to the fringes of the city. National stores didn’t know where Fargo was, let alone whether it could blossom as a retail center.
As plans came together, Bill Schlossman visited an international shopping center convention to try to drum up business. He was largely snubbed. One store representative approached him and sneered, “You think that you’d get decent rent in Fargo, North Dakota?”
Development was fraught with uncertainty and conflicting agendas. Lenders wanted to see signed leases before agreeing to financing, while retailers wanted to see financing before signing leases.
The department storesthe lifeblood of malls – were adamant about opening on time, so construction started three months before a single lease was finalized. One unscrupulous mortgage broker seemed to be waiting for the project to fail so it could swoop in and finish the job itself.
“There was a short period when it was still a bit of a house of cards before it got pulled together,” Brad Schlossman said. “It almost collapsed.”
But Schlossman and his ownership group held steady, making deals with handshakes and on scratch paper in hotels. By the time the mall was ready to open, 52 stores had signed on for the $15 million project.
Each of the nine partners was local, and each had a stake in putting the project together, from the architect to the contractor to a store operator.
Even among that group, faith wasn’t always high.
Randy Johnson, the contractor, remembers his father, Donald, one of the partners, telling people, “It was either going to be one of the largest grain bins in the world, or this thing will take off.”
Like most mall operators of their day, they learned the ropes on the fly.
“It was new to the partners,” said Anderson, the mall’s first manager. “It was new to all of us.”
It was certainly new to him. When the partners asked Anderson, who had a background in engineering and buildings management, to run West Acres, he asked, “What is it?
“They said, ‘It’s a shopping center,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ ”
That was June 1972. Two months later, after a blitz of last-minute construction, Bill Schlossman, his wife, his partners and a host of state and local officials gathered in a chilly, blustery parking lot.
The largest privately constructed building in North Dakota stood behind them. The wheat and barley of the Rabanus farm encircled them.
A future more robust and transformative than any of them could imagine lay ahead.
PART 2: BOOMING MALL SHIFTED ACTION TO THE WEST
It didn’t take Morrie Lanning long to figure out the days of the bookstore he owned in the Holiday Mall, an outdoor shopping center at the intersection of Highway 75 and Interstate 94, were numbered.
“We definitely saw a decline in the traffic when West Acres opened,” said Lanning, who went on to become a Moorhead city councilman, mayor and a Minnesota state representative. “We felt the impact right away.”
He wasn’t the only one. When West Acres opened in August 1972, it tilted the economic center of Fargo and Moorhead from the traditional downtown city centers to a then-remote stretch of Interstate 29 that wasn’t even within the Fargo city limits.
For some businesses and stakeholders, it was a bane that drained customers and sales. For others, it was a boon that spurred growth and opened new doors.
All roads lead west
Both the good and the bad were probably inevitable. If Bill Schlossman and his partners hadn’t built a mall along the interstate, “somebody else would have,” said Jim Gilmour, Fargo’s planning director.
“There was probably going to be a regional shopping center somewhere in Fargo,” he said.
Gilmour said a number of factors helped propel the mall to dominance beyond its sheer size. The confluence of interstates 29 and 94, as Bill Schlossman had predicted, made it a natural hub for both local and out-of-town visitors. It was one of the few areas in town where development wasn’t constricted by a barrier like a river or a military base.
And shifts in the way Americans travel made a car-dependent destination more viable than ever.
“If you’re from a family that traditionally had one car, then you’re going to someplace where you can probably walk or take the bus,” Gilmour said. But in the 1970s, “two-car garages became the norm.”
Vast parking lots were in. Public transit was fading fast. Ridership peaked at more than 4 million immediately after World War II, and has since fallen to about half that today – even as the city’s population has tripled.
“We’re sort of a car nation, and Fargo is part of that,” he said.
A tale of two malls
From the beginning, critics of West Acres said the mall’s success could come at the expense of merchants in downtown Fargo and Moorhead.
The day before the mall opened in August 1972, Bill Schlossman discussed those concerns in The Forum, saying he was working hard to lease the space in the Black Building vacated by Sears and to keep downtown vibrant.
“My past history will show I spent as much as 85 to 90 percent of my time in promoting the downtown of Fargo for a long time,” he said, adding: “I just continue to be bullish about the future of downtown.”
But he couldn’t stop the shift the mall had set in motion. Over time, both shops and shoppers migrated southwest to the mall and the surrounding areas. What was once the city’s center of commerce faded into a malaise of disuse, disrepair and disrepute that has taken more than a decade of concentrated rebuilding to reverse.
Moorhead suffered much the same fate, compounded by a decision to bet heavily on the downtown mall concept Fargo had rejected. As West Acres was being built, Moorhead tore up much of its own downtown to make way for the Moorhead Center Mall, which opened in 1973 as a shopping center attached to City Hall.
The project was spurred in part by federal dollars earmarked for urban renewal projects, said Lanning, the longtime Moorhead mayor. Like West Acres, it was seen as a new, centralized home for scattered retailers.
But while West Acres thrived from opening day, the Moorhead Center Mall stumbled out of the blocks and never quite caught fire.
The lack of a department store hurt early on. The mall went without one until Eckstein’s, a regional store, opened in 1980. Herberger’s, the current anchor tenant and the mall’s most prestigious draw, didn’t come until 1983.
Unlike West Acres, the mall was tucked far from easy access to the interstate. In Lanning’s view, it was literally on the wrong side of the tracks, cut off from the southern portion of the city by not one but two sets of railroad lines carrying dozens of trains a day.
“That’s a barrier,” Lanning said. “Knowing what we all know today about railroad traffic, I think Moorhead would’ve been better off if its redevelopment had occurred south of Main Avenue instead of north,” he said.
The mall, like downtown Fargo, has pushed for a comeback in recent years, landing a destination store in Furniture For Less and a popular restaurant in Thai Orchid. But even though Minnesota doesn’t tax sales of most clothing – a presumptive advantage – Lanning said neither the mall nor another Moorhead shopping center are likely to dethrone West Acres.
“Moorhead is not going to attract a major shopping center,” he said. “We have to compete on a smaller scale.”
Following the boom
Meanwhile, as the downtowns struggled with the changing landscape, the area surrounding the mall reaped the benefits of their new neighbor.
In spite of financing struggles and early naysayers, business at West Acres started strong and never let up. Within two years, 13th Avenue South, a dirt road when the mall opened, was paved. By 1979, Hornbacher’s, Target, and downtown’s J.C. Penney had all flocked south.
Restaurants, hotels and other shops followed suit, turning the previously rural area into a bustling corridor of commerce.
“When visitors pick a hotel, they ask two things,” said Gilmour, the Fargo planner. “One, does it have a swimming pool, and two, is it near the mall?”
When the mall first opened, it was in Barnes Township, outside of Fargo’s borders. The city agreed to provide water and sewer services to the mall. According to Bill Schlossman, it also promised in a “gentleman’s agreement” not to move to annex the area until 1978.
The deal didn’t last. By 1974, the prosperity of the area – along with a growing demand for services and a need for long-range planning – prompted the Fargo City Commission to mull annexation.
Some city officials were particularly irked by what they saw as pressure from merchants to cater to the mall’s needs, like road improvement, even though it wasn’t part of Fargo. City Planner Keith Burkholder termed it “representation without taxation.”
Schlossman and his merchants protested vigorously, saying the city was reneging on its deal. But Fargo’s city attorney found no concrete evidence the deal existed in any enforceable form.
In 1975, Fargo won approval from the state to annex the land.
A year later, after city officials made peace with the mall, West Acres became part of Fargo.
West Fargo gets a cut
When the annexation was complete, the city picked up hundreds of residents, about 170 businesses, and nearly 3,000 acres. The value of the area was pegged at more than $100 million.
But for all of those gains, the windfall for neighboring West Fargo may have been greater still.
The city owes the favor to Clayton Lodoen, West Fargo’s longtime mayor who also served as a state legislator. In 1973, Lodoen, who was doing double duty as mayor and state representative, pulled off a slick legislative maneuver: He convinced his colleagues to freeze school district boundaries so they wouldn’t be redrawn by annexation.
West Acres, as it so happened, sat in the West Fargo School District. So even after Fargo scooped up the land as its own, the property tax spoils of the shopping center and the surrounding development went across the border to West Fargo schools.
“That was a significant boost to our local school district,” said Mark Lemer, the business manager for West Fargo Public Schools. “It was a catalyst to what followed.”
The tax boost has only gotten bigger. Today, $81 million of the $177 million in taxable land in the West Fargo School District is actually in Fargo.
The development also served to bridge the gap between Fargo and West Fargo.
The cities, once separated by miles of nothing, are now linked by an unbroken string of businesses, homes and infrastructure, making it difficult to discern where one stops and the other begins.
PART 3: A BUSINESS BALANCING ACT
What’s the most valuable product at West Acres?
Easy: You are.
The shopping center’s 120-plus stores sell everything from swanky suits to pricey electronics to head-turning diamonds. But the mall’s owners don’t make a dime off those things.
Instead, they make money selling stores access to the 20,000 shoppers West Acres attracts each day.
“Our direct customers are stores, but our mission is to attract shoppers,” said Brad Schlossman, the West Acres chief executive.
That puts the mall, essentially a well-compensated matchmaker for merchants and customers, in the business of keeping the two related but distinct groups happy.
A sparkling experience
For Rusty Papachek, the mall’s general manager for the past 14 years, that means dwelling on the details of the mall experience – a tidy parking lot, sparkling window glass, friendly security guards.
Oh, and the bathrooms. Employees check on those every 15 to 20 minutes.
“We get a lot of great comments on the restrooms,” Papachek said.
Every morning, Papachek and operations manager Brad Barke start the day by touring the property and looking for anything that needs work. They have a sharp eye for anything out of place, from grass that needs mowing to contractors parked in the wrong spot, but they also try to put themselves in the shoes of a customer coming to the mall for the first time.
“We try to see through their eyes what they see,” Papachek said. “You can’t take back someone’s first impression.”
After the customers leave each night, the operations staff works to make it look like they’ve never been there at all. On a typical night, a half-dozen maintenance workers spend about three hours sweeping and scrubbing the floors, cleaning the carpets, and getting the mall as close to mint condition as possible for the next day’s visitors.
“It’s keeping everything on an even keel so everything looks the same every day,” Barke said. “It’s never done.”
The nightly cleaning spree isn’t just a point of pride – it’s a key pillar of the business plan. In an era in which shoppers can buy every item in the mall with a few clicks online, West Acres has to offer something more.
“It’s the experience,” Papachek said. “We don’t want them just to come and shop.”
West Acres contracts its security operations to Advance Security, which staffs four officers at the mall.
In a relatively troublefree mall with low shoplifting rates, their jobs have more to do with helping out customers with directions than running down miscreants.
“Ninety-five percent of their job is public relations,” Papachek said.
The highest security priority is for lost children. It only happens once or twice a year, but when it does, officers and mall employees mobilize in a hurry.
Kirby Sandvik, branch manager for Advance Security at the mall, said the child is usually found within a minute.
When West Acres first opened, it was outside Fargo city limits – and outside the jurisdiction of Fargo police. So Fred Anderson, the mall’s first operations manager, became a sheriff ’s deputy to help out.
It wasn’t exactly the Wild West – “You don’t hear many bad things that happen at West Acres,” Anderson said – but he dealt with his fair share of shoplifters and the occasional ill-intentioned character.
In one incident, a security guard banged up his shoulder tackling a streaker who was running through the mall in the buff on a dare.
Anderson hauled the offender, a man in his 20s wearing a cowboy hat and nothing else, into the mall office and gave him a stern once-over.
“Well,” said Anderson, a former Navy serviceman thoroughly unimpressed by the antics, “don’t you look cute.”
Waiting, wishing, evolving
Shoppers may stick around for the clean restrooms and the streakerfree environment, but there’s little doubt they come for the shops. And it’s Jim Ross’ job to give the people what they want.
The mall’s leasing manager is responsible for making sense of the constant ebb and flow of stores into, out of and around West Acres.
“There’s leases that are expiring every year,” Ross said. “It’s a puzzle.”
It’s also something of a conundrum: The mall wants stores to be happy enough to stay, but needs them to leave to free up space for additions.
Ross said steady turnover is key to the mall’s health.
“It needs to change,” Ross said. “That’s what keeps it fresh and fun and exciting.”
Few things get mallgoers more pumped up than the addition of a hot new store. In the lead-up to Forever 21’s October 2010 opening, 20 to 30 people a day were asking the mall when the store was coming, and hundreds more buzzed about it online.
But getting to that point requires patience, careful planning, and a bit of luck. Ross can’t simply call up Retail Central Casting and order a new Gap on the double.
The company has to be in expansion mode, and Fargo has to fit into its geographic plans. If a chain hasn’t come to Denver or Minneapolis yet, it’s not likely to skip straight to North Dakota. The right co-tenants, the peer group of stores retailers look for in choosing locations, have to be in place. The mall has to have an opening, and it has to be the right size and in the right location.
Sometimes, that means playing musical stores. To add Hollister, the mall had to shuffle around a halfdozen other tenants.
“It seems like there’s always something we want and the timing isn’t quite right,” said Schlossman, the chief executive.
The process of adding Forever 21, Ross said, took nearly a decade.
Complications aside, there’s no shortage of interest from new tenants. There’s no official “waiting list” because of the myriad factors involved, but the mall is in constant contact with retailers about future possibilities.
After four decades of success, selling the mall to retailers isn’t hard. Its stores average $520 in sales per square foot, better than the industry average of about $350. At times, Ross said, the West Acres branches of some stores have been the top performers in their respective national chains.
The mall keeps its own wish list of stores. Ross was tight-lipped about what they are, but did say trendy global clothing giant H&M is one of them.
Don’t hold your breath on that one just yet, though: Until 20,000 square feet free up, there’s no place to put it.
PART 4:WEST ACRES AN ALWAYS EVOLVING COMMERCIAL CIRCUS
Before West Acres had Facebook to drum up excitement and attract visitors, it had auto shows. And puppet shows, and lion shows, and ugly dog contests, and big pigs.
At various times, Santa Claus arrived via chimney, stagecoach, tractor and helicopter.
And once, there was an elephant. It got stuck in the boiler room door, which hasn’t been right since.
“The marketing was largely eventdriven,” said Brad Schlossman, the mall’s chief executive. “There was a time when the push was to have something going on all the time.”
In that respect, tonight’s 40th anniversary party will be a throwback. There’ll be cupcakes, giveaways, sales and a period movie in the parking lot – “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Technically, it came out a year before the mall opened, but Marketing Director Alissa Sorum figured 1972 classics like “The Godfather,” “Cabaret,” “Deep Throat” and “Deliverance” might not go over well with a family crowd.
In the pantheon of milestone celebrations at the West Acres, this one will be relatively tame.
When the mall debuted new bathrooms in 1973 to replace the woefully undersized ones it opened with (total capacity: about 10), Bill Schlossman, the mall’s founder, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony using toilet paper.
The music was the Engelbert Humperdinck hit “Release Me.” Schlossman “gave a speech about how he checked with accounts to make sure it wasn’t going to be undue drain on the assets,” said Brad Schlossman, Bill’s son.
“They said they decided they were going to bring in a standing committee of men, but thought that was discriminatory, so they let women sit in.”
When the south wing of the mall opened in 1979, “domino wizard” Bob Speca toppled 10,000 dominoes without a hiccup.
For the 20th anniversary in 1992, a daredevil known as “Captain Dynamite” built a specialized coffin in the parking lot, surrounded it with – what else? – dynamite, and blew the whole thing up on live television.
“It was,” Brad Schlossman recalls, “the stupidest thing ever.”
Today, the stunts and sideshows have given way to a sleek marketing campaign that relies heavily on customer interaction and social media. Sorum connects daily with the mall’s 8,600-plus Facebook fans, posting sales and coupons, promoting events and chatting about what stores customers want to see next.
She said customers are eager to offer input because they get excited about particular stores and brands, and many have fond memories of the mall.
“You go there with Mom as a child. You hang out there as a teenager,” she said. “You kind of grow up with it.”
Brad Schlossman said it’s also a point of pride.
“People want their hometown mall to be the best it can be,” he said. “They don’t want to have to go to the Twin Cities and say, ‘Oh, this is so much better than we have here.’ ”
The stores aren’t the only thing to be proud of. As the years have gone on, West Acres has worked to position itself as a showcase for the region’s culture.
The mall has amassed a collection of regional art, from sculptures to statues to paintings by Marjorie Schlossman, Brad’s sister and an accomplished local artist in her own right.
When the mall replaced its banners most recently, it decorated the new ones with photos of local art as well – a subtle but atmospheric touch.
“Our thinking is maybe 10 percent of people notices it, knows that it’s local art, but everybody feels it,” Sorum said.
In 1984, the mall opened the Roger Maris Museum, dedicated to the life and record-setting baseball exploits of Fargo’s favorite hometown slugger.
A year later, Maris died of cancer at age 51. His father survived him for another seven years. Fred Anderson, the mall’s first operations manager, said the elder Maris “used to come to the museum maybe four times a week and just sit there.”
Aside from the shortage of restrooms early on, the mall’s original design has stood the test of time remarkably well. There have been additions – the most recent was the food court in 2001 – but no overhauls to remedy mistakes. There are no problem nooks or abandoned corners.
“The 1972 plan left us with no major structural flaws in layout that leave us with dead-end mall space that nobody wants,” Schlossman said.
The parts of the city depleted by the commercial exodus to West Acres, meanwhile, have staged a comeback.
Doug Burgum, chairman of the downtown-centric Kilbourne Group, said while Broadway is no longer the city’s retail hub, it has its own key role to play.
“You need a vibrant center that can become not just the economic center but the energy center,” said Burgum, who also praised Bill Schlossman and the mall’s other founders for their vision. “You can’t underestimate the economic power of density.”
The Kilbourne Group and others have worked to carve a new niche for downtown, one focused more on local merchants than national chains. Downtown Fargo doesn’t command the same rent as West Acres – “We’re still years away from that,” Burgum said – but it is decidedly on the way back to where Bill Schlossman always hoped it would stay.
Of the mall’s nine original local owners, three have since sold their stakes to a real estate investment trust. The other six are still in the families that originally held them, including local heavyweights like the Johnsons of Meinecke-Johnson Co. and the McCormicks of Northern Improvement.
The Schlossmans, of course, still hold their share, but neither they nor any other group controls a majority. Instead, the partnership meets once a year to talk about the mall.
Randy Johnson, the Meinecke-Johnson president who holds the family share with his sister, said the mall’s trajectory since it opened has been “unbelievable.
“That place started off with a bang, and it’s kept going since,” he said.
Today, the mall draws more than 7 million visiors a year. About 60 perent of them are from the metro area, 20 percent are ithin an hour or so of the mall and the remaining 20 ercent are from farther way.
The mall is popular among Canadian tourists, especially during distinctly American shopping binges like Black Friday. As a place where thouands of strangers – and heir money – mingle very day, West Acres has t times been a showcase or the ups and downs of uman nature.
One letter to The Forum n the late 1970s bitterly astigated a stranger who natched a bag full of Eastr clothes. Another in 1981 warmly thanked someone or returning a package he writer lost while fumling with her gloves in he cold.
In 1976, an employee at Straus Clothing turned in a wallet found under a pile of sweaters and stuffed with nearly $1,000 in foreign curency, ranging from Saudi Arabian riyals to Libyan ank notes.
The Forum, with dizzying lourish, speculated the wner to be “a Middle East otentate in disguise, in the hips, who said merely, malaise, I have lost my mad money.’”
Eventually, the wife of a argo man who taught in audi Arabia stepped forward to claim it. Anderson, he operations manager, aid at the time the incident only goes to show that 99 ercent of our citizens are honest and upright.”
Why only 99 percent, he was asked?
“Well, we got a call from a young man who said he was sure his father had lost that wallet. When we contacted the father in another state by phone, he said he didn’t lose any money in West Acres.”
If the mall is a reflection of the character of the region, Brad Schlossman said, that was the goal all along.
“We didn’t want to build a California in Fargo. We wanted a Red River Valley mall here.”
And what, exactly, is a Red River Valley mall?
“I don’t know if I can answer that question even today,” he said. But over the years, he’s become comfortable with a working definition. “The sense of place,” he said, “was about having people feel at home here.”