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Published July 30 2012

Multimedia | West Acres turns 40: Booming mall shifted action to the west (Part 2 of 4)


Part 1: Rising from a field

Part 2: A city shifts west

Part 3: How a mall works

Part 4: Reinvention reigns

MOORHEAD – 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.

In August 1972, the day before the mall opened, 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

As the downtowns struggled with the changing landscape, meanwhile, 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.

West Acres Package

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502