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Published August 01 2012

West Acres Turns 40: Mall an always evolving commercial circus (Part 4 of 4)

FARGO – 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 event-driven,” 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 visitors a year. About 60 percent of them are from the metro area, 20 percent are within an hour or so of the mall and the remaining 20 percent are from farther away.

The mall is popular among Canadian tourists, especially during distinctly American shopping binges like Black Friday.

As a place where thousands of strangers – and their money – mingle every day, West Acres has at times been a showcase for the ups and downs of human nature.

One letter to The Forum in the late 1970s bitterly castigated a stranger who snatched a bag full of Easter clothes. Another in 1981 warmly thanked someone for returning a package the writer lost while fumbling with her gloves in the 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 currency, ranging from Saudi Arabian riyals to Libyan bank notes.

The Forum, with dizzying flourish, speculated the owner to be “a Middle East potentate in disguise, in the chips, who said merely, ‘malaise, I have lost my mad money.’ ”

Eventually, the wife of a Fargo man who taught in Saudi Arabia stepped forward to claim it. Anderson, the operations manager, said at the time the incident “only goes to show that 99 percent 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.”

If you go

What: West Acres 40th birthday party

When: 5 to 9 tonight

Where: West Acres Shopping Center

Info: Admission is free.

Activities include face painting, balloon animals, a photo booth, and a concert from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. by The Front Fenders.

Free cupcakes will be served near the food court. The first 4,000 visitors to the food court will receive a West Acres tote, some of which include $40 mall gift cards. Visitors will also have the chance to find golden tickets and enter a drawing for larger gift cards. A movie, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” will be shown in the south parking lot at 9 p.m. Bring your own seating.

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