Published July 29 2012
Multimedia | West Acres turns 40: How a remote field became Fargo’s retail giant (Part 1 of 4)
Part 1: Rising from a field
Part 2: A city shifts west
Part 3: How a mall works
Part 4: Reinvention reigns
FARGO - 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 land-use 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 stores– the 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.
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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502