This is the sixth of a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Click here to read parts one, two, three, four, and five.
An aerial view of the mall in its later years. (Photo from Google Maps 2015)
The year 2000 was a mixed year for the Great Mall.
Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet opened a 22,000 square-foot store in April, bringing a hot new retailer to the area.
In May, according to reporting in Columbus Business First, Glimcher Realty bought out its partner in the Great Mall, Great Plains Metro Mall LLC, which I think must have been the name of Jordon Perlmutter & Co.’s interest in the mall.
Throughout the year, the Great Mall vied for a Bass Pro Shops store that was looking to open in the Kansas City area. Kansas City, Missouri, offered Bass Pro tax breaks to open near Bannister Mall before the retailer had even submitted a plan to them (highly unusual), and there was also talk that Bass Pro, that belle of the ball, would choose a spot in Kansas City, Kansas out by the Speedway that was set to open in 2001. The store wound up opening in November of 2006 in Olathe, but not in the Great Mall. It landed thirty blocks north at 119th and I-35.
Repair work on the shifted abutments supporting the 151st Street overpass ran from April to November, making it a little harder for some people to get to the mall for most of the year. The final cost of the repairs was reported to be $3.8 million, which is almost what the bridge had cost in the first place. An investigation by a third party determined the engineering company TranSystems Corp. was responsible for $2.3 million of the repair costs because parts of the bridge were designed poorly and inappropriate soils were used in the embankments built for the abutments. The rest of the responsibility/cost was divided up between APAC Kansas Inc. (the contractor, $394,000), GeoStystems Engineering Inc. (the soil tester, $12,500), and the Kansas Department of Transportation ($500,000) for failing to catch design problems. Olathe, which was not deemed at fault in any way, paid for $550,000 of the repair costs.
The brightest spot for the mall in the year 2000 appears to have been the Fourth of July. Olathe’s Fourth of July celebration moved from Frontier Park to the Great Mall to accommodate the growing crowds. It featured bands, a climbing wall, kite flying, face painting, and, of course, fireworks. The event was held in the grassy area southwest of the mall close to the theaters.
Speaking of the theaters, that fall Dickinson Theatres filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. They asked the court to allow it to reject “money-draining” leases on four of their theaters, one of which was the Great Mall 16. They were able to renegotiate their lease with the mall – which forgave $1 million in back rent – and pulled out of bankruptcy early the next year.
Last year when I wrote a history of Dickinson Theatres for this blog, a former Dickinson employee named Josh reached out to me. He worked in the Great Mall 16, mostly as a projectionist from 1999 to 2003, and even met his wife at the theater. I contacted him again while working on this history to see if there was any extra detail on the theater I could include. Josh told me that upstairs at the theater there was “a huge room full of concession inventory” and “a big storage area up there full of stuff from old theaters, and spare parts and stuff, that was always locked.” He continued, “The [projection] booth had its own office, so there was a long hallway of projectors, then off to one side a huge room with a desk, trailer cabinet, build-up tables. It was nice.”
A view of the movie theater from inside the mall, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)
Josh also mentioned that most of the stores in the mall closed much earlier than the theater, which meant that the “donut”/racetrack/indoor hallway closed down too. “We’d have all these people enjoying the last movie, it gets out at like 2, and they leave to try to get to their car and find mall security has put gates up across the hallway in both directions, so people could only use the exit right by the theater.”
Josh also included a photograph of this carpet salvaged from the mall’s theater.
In November, the mall added Casual Corner and Bath and Body Works to its tenant list. However, they lost Johnny Rockets, a memorable 1950s-style diner which was near where the Phase II addition was supposed to have gone.
The former Johnny Rockets on the left and the place where the Phase II addition would have gone on the right. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)
A long piece by Mark Couch and Joyce Smith ran in the KC Star on November 26th describing the local mall scene. It pointed out that in 1995 there were 37.3 million square-feet of retail space in the Kansas City area. Five years later, there were 44.6 million square-feet. The national average was 20 square-feet of retail space per person, and by 2000, the Kansas City area had more than 30 square-feet per person. The area appeared to be overbuilt, yet there were plans for even more malls – notably around 135th and Antioch, and out by the Speedway. Internet sales were also mentioned as a looming threat to the many area shopping centers.
The article pointed to Country Club Plaza, Oak Park Mall, Independence Center, and Town Center Plaza as thriving. Bannister Mall, Indian Springs, and Metcalf South were struggling. And for whatever reason it didn’t even mention the Great Mall of the Great Plains.
In 2001, Jeff Leicht, the mall’s general manager resigned to pursue other endeavors. Several new stores opened in the mall, such as Deb and a Nautica outlet. Old Navy converted into an Old Navy Outlet. And Dillard’s Clearance Center closed, but was quickly replaced by a VF Factory Outlet.
The sign for Deb, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)
The Fourth of July was held at the Great Mall again, and it sounded even bigger and better than the year before (with one small exception). This time, along with the bands and kite flying and face painting, there was also a moonwalk and a bike parade. The City Council even approved an exception to the city’s liquor laws that allowed for alcohol to be sold at the mall (previously a no-go because of the Olathe School District’s presence inside the mall, but hey, it’s summer and school is out). 30,000 people came out to celebrate.
The only problem was that the $15,000 city-sponsored fireworks display started with a big bang, and was over in 38 seconds. A malfunction caused the fireworks to all launch at once. A few fires had to be put out on the trailers that launched the fireworks, but thankfully nobody was injured. The City of Olathe struck a deal with Austin Pyrotechnics (which was apologetic in the KC Star) where they wound up paying nothing for the 2001 show, and got a $20,000 show in 2002 for free.
The Great Mall closed early on September 11th, 2001 during the attacks on the United States, but, like most area malls, they reopened on the 12th. A late November article in the Kansas City Business Journal with the headline “Tryptophan, terrorism don’t deter KC shoppers” observed that business seemed to be strong at area malls, including the Great Mall. However, in December other articles pointed to weaker-than-expected sales nationwide during the holiday season, caused by the ongoing recession and rising unemployment. This seems to have worked out okay for the Great Mall, as it was a discount center. Robert Kreicbergs, the mall’s marketing director, told the KC Star that they didn’t have sales numbers, but that traffic was up about 9% compared to the previous year.
In January of 2002, Glimcher asked Olathe to continue its 50% property tax abatement on the Great Mall, which was set to decrease because the mall had not brought in the agreed-upon revenue. The original deal said that the mall needed to bring in $42.3 million in sales tax over its first four years, otherwise its 50% property tax abatement would be reduced to a 33.3% abatement. By 2002, the mall had only brought in $28.2 million, putting it at about 66% of where it needed to be. Glimcher said decreasing their abatement would cost them an extra $550,000 per year in property taxes.
The Great Mall’s new general manager, Brad Cornell, said that part of why the mall had not met the required revenue was because the original figures were set with the expectation that the still-unbuilt Phase II of the mall would be open within that first four years. Without it, the figures were not realistic. He added that the mall was still actively looking for the right tenant for that addition to the mall.
The next month, the Olathe City Council voted 5-to-1 to continue the 50% abatement, citing the fact that while the mall had not fully delivered, it was still bringing in a lot of revenue and contributing to the quality of life in Olathe. It was also noted that when the original abatement deal was made, it was with another developer, and Glimcher had not yet joined the project.
That summer, the Fourth of July celebration went off without a hitch, and in August the Great Mall hosted the Great Plains Robot Showdown, a robot fighting tournament. Around 20 remote-controlled robots designed by members of the Mid U.S. Robotics Club fought each other in an enclosed arena for the amusement of their flesh-having masters.
Also of note: 2002 was the first year the mall hosted SummerFest. This was an event for junior high and high school students, where they could get together and celebrate the end of summer. It was held in and around the Great Mall 16, and featured performances by high school bands, movies, karaoke, games, dancing, and free food and drinks.
2003 started off with the announcement that the Great Mall would be losing another anchor: Oshman’s SuperSports USA. The Old Navy Outlet also closed by the end of January, joining the recently closed The Paper Factory, Black and Decker Outlet, and Tools and More. Generally new stores would replace them, but not always, and rarely with the same name recognition. Although, in late 2002 the mall had added a Brooks Brothers Outlet, which was a nice score.
In 2003, development in western Wyandotte County around the new Kansas Speedway was beginning to shape up, and it looked like the area (only 25 miles from the Great Mall) could be a formidable opponent for the Great Mall and other Johnson County retailers. A Cabela’s, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Great Wolf Lodge were all on the horizon, along with the T-Bones minor league ballpark and the Legends shopping center.
A hallway in the mall, 2013. (Photo by Shanna A onFoursquare)
That year’s Fourth of July celebration at the Great Mall drew in approximately 35,000 people, and added a fashion show, clowns, balloon artists, and Christian youth theater to the list of activities. Many of the activities were apparently held inside the mall to allow attendees to beat the heat (and possibly do a little shopping).
August brought a second SummerFest, and September brought a church to the mall. In 2003, Faith Journey Church began services in the Great Mall 16 theater, where it remained until 2007 when it got its own space in the mall. From 2007, it gradually expanded into neighboring storefronts, providing – among other things – free babysitting for mall employees and a large indoor children’s playground open to the public. (The church currently exists in downtown Olathe.)
In October an article appeared about a seasonal Halloween shop in the mall called Halloween Madness. The store’s owner, Robin Hodges, had found the seasonal business to be so good that he took out a full-time lease and named the store Party Madness. Also, 2003 appears to have been the first year the Great Mall sponsored trick-or-treating inside the mall, but I’m not completely sure about that.
Black Friday (which was a new enough thing in 2003 that the KC Star defined it for unfamiliar readers) was reported to be a good one for the Great Mall that year. And thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs’ strong season, December brought many shoppers looking for Chiefs merchandise. The Great Mall’s Just Sports reported not being able to keep anything with a Chiefs logo on the shelves: “jerseys, silly slammers, toy monster trucks, pennants, flags, license-plate frames, baby bibs, whatever.”
In January of 2004, KB Toys filed for bankruptcy, closing 356 stores across the United States, including their Great Mall location. In February, Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet closed.
In November of 2004 it was reported that in 2003 the Great Mall had suffered a 13% drop in sales. Due to the drop, sales tax revenue had come up shorter than expected again, and in July the mall’s property tax abatement had been changed from 50% to 45.4%. General Manager Brad Cornell attributed the drop to the loss of Old Navy and Oshman’s, and said that 2004 looked like it was going to be brighter. He said that the mall was still about 90% leased, which is where it had hovered for most of its years, and also pointed out that the food court was scheduled to get a new play area. Tim McKee, vice president of economic development with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce, told the KC Star that the mall was in the process of transitioning from an outlet center into a more traditional mall. He was optimistic that a big anchor store would come in and revitalize the mall.
The KC Star reported that the Great Mall’s peak sales were in its first full year: $104 million in 1998. In 1999 sales dropped to $101 million and held fairly steady around there until 2003, when sales dropped to $86.2 million.
Brooks Brothers, Bass, and Van Heusen announced that they would be leaving at the end of 2004.
2005, 2006, and 2007 saw the coming and/or going of many retailers. It would be tedious to keep track of it all, so I’ll just detail the anchors:
By the end of 2004, the remaining anchors were listed as Burlington Coat Factory, Dickinson Theatres, Foozles, Group USA, Jeepers!, and Marshalls (all there from the beginning), along with the relative newcomer VF Factory Outlet. In June of 2005, Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear moved into Oshman’s old anchor spot, but the mall lost Linens N Things soon after. Jeepers closed in early 2006, and Marshalls left after that for the new Olathe Pointe shopping center at 119th and Black Bob. Zonkers replaced Jeepers. Foozles closed that fall. And by the end of 2006, Cosmic Mini-Golf was listed as an anchor. It was a very homemade, blacklight-lit, neon-painted mini-golf course, and although it was one of my favorite activities in the mall, it’s not exactly what one thinks of as an anchor.
You got all that? There will be a test at the end, so I sure hope so.
A picture from inside Cosmic Mini Golf, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)
Actually, since I’ve got you here, let me just give you a sampling of the stores that came and/or went in that time: Aquariums Wholesale, Aquatic 101 (seller of tropical fish), Big Dog Sportswear, Braxton’s Formalwear, Casual Corner, Casual Male Big & Tall, Country Cottage, Designer Shoe Warehouse (gone for real this time), Everything For A Dollar, Game Zone, Girlfriends, Hibbett Sports, Lane Bryant Outlet, Movie Wise, Mr. Bear’s Workshop, Mystic Asia, National Jewelry Outlet, Nextel, Noah’s Ark, Perfume Palace of Kansas, Santa Fe Trader (handmade furniture and pottery from Mexico), Snyder’s Spas & Pools, Sportibles, Thoughtful Throws, Totes Sunglass World, Wisdom Imaging Tek (personalized photo gift items).
Perfume Palace, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)
My co-worker, Ian, told me of some temp work he did for Movie Wise (a market research company) around that time, and I thought it was both funny and an insight into what the mall was like at the time. “One day [the temp agency] sent me out to the mall to do some actual market research and it was the most miserable eight hours of my life. They had leased a vacant space next to the Hot Topic (nestled behind the Johnny Rockets), and our job was to convince shoppers to watch trailers for upcoming movies. This was a 20-minute process and there was absolutely no compensation for the shoppers. Not even free movie passes or passes to an upcoming advance screening! So I’m a total introvert, and talking to random people was agonizing enough, but asking them to waste their time made it so much worse. I got approximately zero people to watch the trailers. Meanwhile this older guy I worked with was getting people left and right.”
There was not a lot of other news about the Great Mall in that three-year timespan. In 2005, there was an article about an international shoplifting ring that had targeted the Great Mall and Oak Park. Three individuals from Mexico and in the United States illegally were charged with $31,000 in theft, but quickly posted bail (which is generally low in theft charges) and disappeared. “The probability of their returning is slim,” Overland Park detective Byron Pierce told the KC Star.
In 2006, an Olathe resident requested that the City Council classify Spencer’s (a store in the Great Mall) as an adult business because they sold sex toys. The council didn’t change the classification of the business, but did pass changes to the municipal code to make it illegal to display certain devices and materials to minors, punishable by one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
A mall hallway, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)
By the end of 2006, Olathe officials were no longer speaking about the Great Mall with any optimism. As I mentioned earlier, the mall’s sales had dropped from just under $100 million in 2002 to $86 million in 2003. At the time, mall and city officials held out hope for 2004, but when that year turned in $78 million, optimism about the outlet center transitioning into a more traditional mall no longer made sense. (2004 was the last year that the mall’s revenue had to be reported publicly under their tax abatement agreement, so I’m not sure what the numbers for later years were.) Tim McKee told the KC Star that Glimcher would have to make a substantial investment in the mall if they hoped to change its image.
Olathe city officials even briefly talked about replacing the mall with something else. A developer pitched a plan to build a nearly $800 million Legoland theme park and tourist mecca (including a hotel, a soccer complex, an indoor ski slope, a private aquarium, and retail) in Olathe around K-10 and I-435. Olathe asked them if they would consider the Great Mall’s location. The developer asked for $670 million in incentives, Olathe decided that that was probably not going to work for their city, and that was that.
One positive note from 2006 was that in November, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau began operating out of the former Marshalls. Every year for several years they used the massive retail space to distribute gifts, clothing, and food to more than 2,500 families in need.
The Great Mall’s property tax abatement expired at the start of 2007.
In 2008, Monkey Bizness opened inside the old Linens N Things location, and – perhaps more significantly – Glimcher Realty Trust announced that they were unloading non-strategic properties and wanted to sell the Great Mall. In an assessment in the KC Star that felt a bit like a eulogy, Andy Hyland wrote that in its best year, the mall only ever made half of the $200 million in sales it had once been projected to make. He also observed how right around the time the Great Mall opened, open-air shopping centers like Town Center Plaza, The Legends, and Olathe Pointe were winning favor with area shoppers. The KC Star’s Joyce Smith pointed to the unbuilt Phase II, or “entertainment phase,” as one reason the mall never took off. Tim McKee said that he felt like the mall was built about a decade too early, before the surrounding area had developed enough to support a mall and draw in (and maintain) the anchor stores it needed.
There was also the matter of outlet malls being on the wane by the time the mall opened, and the mall never becoming the tourist hotspot developers had been hoping for. Again, I may be out of touch with what tourists want, but I can’t help but wonder if keeping the prairie theme would have made the mall more of a curiosity for tourists.
Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland said he was willing to work with any type of plan for the area, and pointed out that even with the abatements, the mall had been good for the city from a tax revenue perspective.
That May, the mall’s longtime general manager Brad Cornell left for a job with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce.
But it wasn’t over for the Great Mall yet.
In July, the mall hosted another Fourth. Steve & Barry’s announced that they were filing for bankruptcy and would be liquidating all of their stores. And Glimcher announced that they had a buyer, and hoped to close the deal by the end of the year.
Thank you for reading this history of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I would like to thank all of the journalists at the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Business Journal, and The Olathe News whose hard work I drew from. I would also like to thank everybody who provided pictures and/or anecdotes. Special thanks to Bryan for research tips and spending countless hours walking malls with me. And finally, thank you to all of the people who made the mall possible, and everybody who worked and shopped there and made it what it was during its all-too-short existence. If you have any memories about the mall you would like to share, please leave us a comment, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!
-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library