This is a third in a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains.
1995 would bring a trickle of good news for the mall, but no construction. In April, local theater chain Dickinson Theatres announced that they would be building a deluxe theater at the mall that would be open in the fall of 1996. The initial plan was for a 14-screen, 50,000 square-foot theater that would serve as another mall anchor. “It’s going to be as nice as anything we’ve built in Kansas City. It’s going to have high-back rocker seats, carpeting in all the auditoriums, cupholder armrests. In fact, we’re going to shoot for 100% THX certification in all the theaters,” company president Wood Dickinson told the KC Star.
That same month, Jordon Perlmutter & Co. (JP&Co) and Petrie Dierman Kughn got city approval for their final development plans for the Great Mall. The mall was going to have a prairie theme. The entrances were to have canopies over them shaped like Conestoga wagons, and there would be wheat stalks carved into the outside walls of the mall. Inside, there would be life-sized buffalo sculptures, giant sunflowers, sculptures of historical figures whose bodies would spell out “Great Mall,” and a ticker updating mall-goers about grain production. The food court was going to have picnic tables with checkered tablecloths. And the mall would be divided up into three sections to help mall patrons orient themselves in the massive facility: Buffalo, Sunflower, and Breadbasket of America. It doesn’t exactly scream “Johnson County in the 1990s” to me, but it sounds like it would have been pretty cool.
In August, JP&Co. bought out Petrie Dierman Kughn’s interest in the mall, forming a joint venture with Glimcher Realty of Columbus, Ohio. From what I could see the new partnership wasn’t publicly announced until early the next year, however in October JP&Co. told Olathe that they were having ongoing troubles with financing, and still couldn’t start construction. They had some tenants lined up and ready to go, but they needed more tenants to sign on so that they could secure final financing for the project. It seems that Glimcher was brought in to help secure the tenants and financing that Petrie Dierman Kughn had been struggling to get.
The developers were now anticipating that the mall would open in early 1997 instead of the fall of 1996.
Meanwhile, after a relatively slow start to the decade, retail in Johnson County was about to explode. By the middle of 1995, there were four other major shopping centers in development in Johnson County, and all of them were expecting to open by the end of 1996. Town Center Plaza in Leawood, Merriam Town Center, the WestGlen Shopping Center in Shawnee, and Shawnee Station were all underway. On top of that, Oak Park Mall was expanding. That November, two other developers announced that they were planning a large retail development plus a huge movie theater in Olathe at Strang Line and I-35, less than five miles away from where the Great Mall was to go.
Nevertheless, the Great Mall persisted. By December, there had at last been a break in the financing efforts. While they still didn’t have the requisite tenant commitment for the Great Mall, JP&Co.’s new partner Glimcher Realty had come through. Their strong reputation with Ohio banks (along with a substantial amount of their own equity) finally unlocked the additional financing they needed to get started on the project.
The developers quickly obtained a first-phase building permit from Olathe, allowing them to begin on foundation and structural work for roughly the first half of the shopping center. The city also agreed to $1.7 million (to be paid back to the city by the developers) in infrastructure improvements such as relocating streets and storm drains, and building sewer and water lines.
Around this time, reporting in the KC Star added one more tenant of note: The Burlington Coat Factory.
In January of 1996, the Olathe City Council updated the previous deal with the developers (I assume because certain things had changed over the years and Glimcher had replaced the other developer) and approved $110 million in industrial revenue bonds* (up from $85 million in 1992) and reconfirmed a 50% property tax abatement through 2006.
(*Note: If, like me, you did not know what industrial revenue bonds were at the start of all of this, allow me to share with you this helpful description from the KC Star’s Stacy Downs: “Cities issue industrial revenue bonds to help companies finance building construction. A city and a company enter into an agreement that essentially gives the city ownership of the company’s property. The company leases the property, and the payments go toward retiring debt.”)
Finally, on Tuesday January 23rd, 1996 ground was broken. Olathe mayor Larry Campbell, Kansas Commerce Secretary Gary Sherrer, Jordon Perlmutter, and David and Herb Glimcher were pictured in the KC Star with shovels, digging into the ground. However, being January, Stacy Downs noted, “It was more of a snow shoveling than a ground breaking.”
Still, the mall was officially underway. It was expected to cost $110 million in total, measure 1,000,000 square-feet, and open in March or April of 1997. Estimates now projected that it would employ 2,000 people, and bring in about $150 to $200 million per year. (I suspect the decrease in estimated revenue came from accounting for all of the other new developments that would be springing up in Johnson County, many of which weren’t even announced when the first assessment was done.)
By the start of summer, the skeleton of much of the mall was complete, and in June the developers announced their intention to add a 200,000 square-foot addition to the mall that would feature an entertainment area. They requested an additional $10 million in industrial revenue bonds for the entertainment addition, and the Olathe City Council granted it.
Around this time, I began to notice that mall spokespeople were really emphasizing tourism and entertainment in their public remarks. It had come up before, but it now seemed to be a point they were highlighting. Based on the tenant list, it was still an outlet mall, and discounts and outlet stores were regularly touted, but with the announcement of the entertainment addition, spokespeople talked a lot more about the mall being a tourist destination and a place where people would go to spend the whole day. For example, the president of the mall’s leasing company, Lord Associates, Courtney Lord told the KC Star, “People will come for the experience, and it’s a place people will travel longer distances to see.” In July there was even an announcement that they had hired Donna Pottier (previously of the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau) away from the Olathe Area Chamber of Commerce to be the Director of Tourism for the mall.
By the fall of 1996, the 14-screen Dickinson theater at the mall had been upgraded to a 16-screen theater. However, in October the Olathe City Council gave final approval for a 30-screen AMC theater in the aforementioned Strang Line area less than five miles away, which was sure to be tough competition. By the end of 1997 Olathe would be going from a city with eight theater screens (Dickinson’s Olathe Landing 8) to one with 54, and only time would tell how sustainable that was.
Another problem was emerging for the Great Mall, although it was not something that most people wouldn’t generally consider problematic. The average unemployment rate in Johnson County in 1995 was a remarkable 2.9%. Up through the fall of 1996, the average unemployment rate was 2.6%. With such a competitive labor market, it was going to be very difficult to staff the mall with the 2,000 to 3,000 people it would need without higher-than-average wages. In the KC Star, Robert A. Cronkleton wrote, “Some Johnson County fast-food restaurants pay well above minimum wage to attract workers. Some even offer partial benefits to workers who would not have qualified otherwise.” Retailers had the option to hire people from outside Johnson County, but Olathe’s position away from the Kansas City area made that a tricky prospect for people without a car, further narrowing the hiring pool.
By the end of 1996, the local economy was finishing strong, and 1997 was projected to be even better. It was going to be a great year to open a mall in Johnson County.
In January of 1997, the exterior walls were up and work was being done inside the mall, but developers announced that they were pushing back the grand opening from March to August for two reasons. First, they wanted all of the stores to open at the same time, thinking it would be better to make a big splash than to have a slow build up to a completely operational mall. And second, according to Gail Redmond, president of the Olathe Area Chamber of Commerce, there had “been more input about the design and technology of the mall, which has contributed to a later opening date.”
The developers had decided to (mostly) ditch the prairie theme of the mall, and instead go with a high-tech aesthetic. It was revealed that the mall would now have exposed ceilings and glass storefronts to fit with the more cutting-edge style of the late 1990s, but at first very little else was disclosed about the new look, which JPRA Architects was working on. A few months later, a promotional leasing video described the mall as “the value and entertainment center of the future,” saying it would have 32-inch monitors at metallic kiosks near the entrances promoting stores in the mall and displaying movie showtimes. What seems to have been lost in this redesign is the prairie kitschiness that could have made for a more interesting tourist attraction. And tourists had been deemed crucial to the success of the mall.
However, there was also talk at the time about Jeepers*, an indoor amusement park for children, and “Metropolis,” an area for adults with themed restaurants and a rotunda for live entertainment, which could have been appealing to tourists.
(*Note: I wasn’t able to tell for sure, but I think that Jeepers replaced the previously-planned planned Fun Factory arcade, which would have had a “western-motif” under the earlier prairie theme of the mall.)
In late April, the Olathe City Council and Planning Commission members were given a tour of the mall. Many seemed impressed with the size of the structure overall, but some seemed underwhelmed by the progress on the interior. “There’s still quite a bit left to the imagination at this point,” Councilman John Bacon told Cori Cornelison of the KC Star.
In May, William Carpenter Jr., president and chief financial officer of Prime Retail, which was one of the country’s largest outlet mall developers at the time, shared a bit of industry gossip with the KC Star, saying that the rumor was that the Great Mall’s leasing was still not where it needed to be, and that their close proximity to a major city was working against them as an outlet center. Michael Glimcher acknowledged that leasing was lower than ideal, but countered that even though they were closer to a major population area than was common, outlet centers had broken the “sensitivity barrier” before and still enjoyed success. He was optimistic that once retailers saw the grand opening of the Great Mall in August, they would have many more stores signing up.
In that same article, Eric Palmer of the KC Star wrote, “The Great Mall will open at the same time financial analysts claim shoppers may have gotten too much of a good thing. […] Full-price retailers have been more aggressive, giving shoppers less reason to drive out of their way to search for bargains. According to a report last year from the consulting firm of Arthur Andersen, sales per square foot at outlet malls dropped 3% in 1995. As the number of outlet malls has increased, competition for tenants has gotten intense, according to retail experts.” He also noted that most of the value-oriented malls successfully breaking the proximity rule were in places with much larger populations than the Kansas City area, and usually in areas with high tourist traffic.
In the early 1990s, outlet malls were a rare bright spot in retail, but as the economy improved across the country, it seems like the tables had turned, both due to overbuilding and customers not having to prioritize bargains as much.
Still, it was not all doom and gloom in the first half of 1997. On Thursday May 22nd, 1997, Jeepers, the 30,000 square-foot indoor amusement park for kids, had a grand opening celebration, becoming the first part of the mall to open to the public. There was a ribbon-cutting and hundreds of people attended, riding the indoor Python Pit roller coaster, bumper cars, and kiddie train, while others played laser tag or played in the big, tubed play structure, which I believe was dubbed “Jungle Junction.” The Tiny Rhino Diner served up appetizers, hamburgers, pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and salads, and I have to imagine a good time was had by all.
The rest of the mall was scheduled to open on August 14th.
In July there was an article with interviews from foreign exchange students who were returning to their native countries. A disappointed Viviane Crosa of Paraguay said, “I can’t believe I won’t be here to see the opening of the Great Mall. It stinks.”
One hopes she made it back to see it in all its glory before it was gone.
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 email@example.com. Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!
-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library