Category Archives: Organizations

Johnson County’s Poor Farm

Photo taken at the Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1917. Johnson County Museum
OVER the hill to the poor-house I ’m trudgin’ my weary way—,  
I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray—,  
I, who am smart an’ chipper, for all the years I ’ve told,  
As many another woman that’s only half as old.  
Over the hill to the poor-house—I can’t quite make it clear!          
Over the hill to the poor-house—it seems so horrid queer!  
Many a step I ’ve taken a-toilin’ to and fro,  
But this is a sort of journey I never thought to go. 

The story from the above 1872 Will Carleton poem “Adversity” was once a common tale for those living with poverty or disability in America. Anyone who could not find self-supporting work – due to age, physical or mental disability, dependent children, or other factors – and who had no family to care for them would find themselves facing the prospect of the poorhouse. Originating in the United Kingdom, poorhouses were institutions designed to employ the poor and disabled in exchange for food, housing, and healthcare. As the British Empire spread, so did its ideologies; Colonial America’s larger cities featured poorhouses and, as the Union formed and expanded, so followed poorhouses or – as was more common in the U.S. – poor farms. County governments in each state oversaw poor farms where residents, then referred to as “inmates”, were expected to complete farm labor and housework for room and board. 

By the early 20th century, most Kansas counties had a poor farm. Johnson County’s poor farm was built on a 160-acre plot at the corner of what is now 119th Street and Ridgeview Road in Olathe. While its specific origin date is unclear, it opened in the mid-1860s with 8 residents working the farm. With the assistance of a small staff, they grew corn, oats, black sorghum, hay potatoes, cow peas, and apples. They raised hogs, cows, and chickens. During its tenure, the farm housed an average of 15-40 residents, though times of widespread hardship saw higher numbers.  

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

In 1909, a visiting representative from the Olathe Mirror newspaper described the farm as clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. Of its then twelve residents, it was said: “Some of these are too aged to be of any assistance and three of them are blind, so that as a whole the inmates instead of being a help either on the farm or in the infirmary, must be helped.” This was true for many farms across the country. The circumstances leading people to poor farms often made them unsuitable for the hard labor of farm work. Over time, many county-appointed superintendents found it more financially viable to rent their farmland out, using the proceeds to provide for their residents, rather than rely on them for farm output.  

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

As management for poor farms was largely unregulated, quality of life varied greatly among different counties and states. Some superintendents received salaries while others made only what the farm earnings would allow. Ideologies differed, too, on what poor farms were designed for, with some treating them as purely charitable ventures while others sought high profits – leading many residents to experience mental and physical abuse, overwork, and unclean and inadequate surroundings. Residents of poor farms sometimes shared one razor, toothbrush, and wash basin among themselves. Unsurprisingly, disease spread quickly in these places. To justify such conditions, superintendents would claim they did not want to provide what they saw as luxury items, believing that providing comforts would prevent residents from wanting to leave poor farms – but most never had the ability to leave, regardless of want. 

Poor farms were ubiquitous for over a century in the United States, but population and economic changes made the already shaky system untenable in the first half of the 20th century. The 1929 economic crisis that ushered in the Great Depression led to overwhelming need for poor relief. Poor farms lacked funding to care for their already existing residents and were unable to take on further economic burdens. By 1933 almost one-third of all Kansas farmland was tax delinquent, and the country was in crisis. In 1935 Congress created the Social Security Act and, with it, federal financial support for the elderly, disabled, dependent mothers and children, and unemployed. These changes, along with a series of housing reforms, allowed many who would have faced poor farms to live independently. Three years later, nearly a third of all Kansas poor farms had been repurposed or closed entirely. 

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

As methods of social relief changed, so did public opinion. Poor farms were increasingly viewed as inhumane and outdated, and public thought turned toward newer institutions designed to provide for people on an individual level – nursing homes, mental health facilities, and schools for deaf and blind students. Many former Kansas poor farms were converted to nursing homes, community centers, and hospitals. Operating through the end of World War II, the Johnson County Poor Farm became a senior care facility before the land was repurposed for government use. Gone but not entirely forgotten, the plot where the farm once stood still provides services to the county’s many residents; it now houses the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, MED-ACT, and the K-State Research and Extension Office.  

-Sam S., Johnson County Library

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April Showers Bring May Flowers

Spring is a busy season for many as they cultivate their gardens with the hope of seeing blooming dividends.  One organization dedicated to the pursuit of gardening is the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs.  At one time, more than seventy-five individual garden clubs belonged to the KAGC.

In 1926, a garden club in Emporia, Kansas was formed and became the founding member of the Kansas Association Garden Clubs.  Six years later, the Emporia group joined the National Garden Club, Inc.  In the next several decades, several groups throughout the Midwest joined the KAGC.  The Kansas groups were broken into districts based on their location: East Central, Mid East, North Central, Northeast, Northwest, South Central, Southeast, and Southwest.

One of the many highlights from the KAGC is the annual garden shows that take place among the various groups.  The Johnson County Museum houses several artifacts and photographs from various garden shows, particularly those of the East Central District.  I was able to speak with KAGC historian Sheila Miller on the history of garden clubs in Kansas and several of their traditions.

Not just for adults, youth would often participate in garden shows.  Pictured above are Susan Miller, Jeffery Woods, and Janet Elswood circa 1959.  (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

Sheila Miller has spent decades with the Kansas Garden Clubs and belongs to the Bonner Springs Group. The group in Bonner Springs joined the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs in 1960, and Sheila joined in 1964 after getting a recommendation from a friend.   Being new to the community at the time, she saw joining the group as an opportunity to get to know her fellow gardeners.  For the past seven years, Sheila has worked diligently as the historian for the KAGC, preserving official documents, memorabilia, and general history of the organization.  These include yearbooks from the different Kansas clubs, which can provide inspiration for club members.  Some of the fond memories include working together on projects, visiting nursing homes, planting flowers at Kelly Murphy Park, and other gardening events (like the yearly garden shows).

Kelly Memorial Park, located in Bonner Springs, honors slain police officer Maureen Kelly Murphy.  (Photograph is courtesy of City of Bonner Springs.)

The annual garden shows are intended to educate the members and community about various gardening techniques and showcase the plants and flowers that are on display.  Members have the opportunity to show off ‘the very best of their garden’.  It takes a great deal of careful planning and preparation to be able to enter the show.

Mrs. Charles O’Conner stands proudly with her flower arrangement, circa 1959. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

The majority of the flower shows are open to the public, with family and friends of the members coming to show their support and learn a little bit about gardening in the process.

The East Central District Garden Show was held in a local school gymnasium.  Date unknown.  (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory).

While there may not be monetary prizes involved with winning at a local garden show, there is a great deal of pride and honor that goes with the title.  Ribbons are given out to the winner in each group.  The JoCoHistory Collection houses over 40,000 historical photographs and maps, including many garden exhibits and flower gardens.

Mrs. N.L. Wilson poses beside her prize-winning iris, circa 1954. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory).

The Kansas Associated Garden Clubs has gone through many changes over the past several years.  There are currently nine local Kansas gardening clubs that fit under the KAGC banner, and the impact of the 2020 pandemic has forced groups to meet virtually for the time being.  The Bonner Springs Garden Club is one of the nine that continue to meet and discuss various garden topics including horticulture, health and environmental issues, and participation in projects for the benefit of the local community.  Though the club may seem different, their goal of beautification and education remains the same.

This image is provided courtesy of the Bonner Springs Garden Cub.

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

Author note: The author offers her deepest gratitude to historian Sheila Miller for her cooperation and knowledge of the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs.

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Blooming Flower Architecture – 8101 Lenexa Drive

Every year at Christmas my parents, three brothers and I would travel from Emporia, Kansas, to my Uncle’s house in Liberty, Missouri, and it was always an exciting time for me!  My dad, a trucker by trade, always knew the quickest route to drive, but when I-35 was completed the 120+ mile trip went much faster.  When we reached the outskirts of Gardner, I knew we had reached “the city” where I could enjoy looking at the big city architecture. I remember the South Twin Drive-In, the Olathe Welcome sign in the middle of I-35, and the oh-so-sophisticated Georgetown Apartments.  However, my favorite was the Lee Co. building at 8101 Lenexa Drive with its unique concrete pillars that curved at the top. I will always remember it as the Lee Building, known today for their jeans, but it was originally built for Eisen Mercantile.

Entrance to 8101 Lenexa Drive, from Google Maps

Eisen Mercantile began as a dry goods store on Walnut Street in Kansas City, Missouri, by a Russian immigrant named Abraham Eisen. He ran this store until his death in 1939 when it passed to his two sons, Harry and Melvin.  In the 1950’s, they changed gears and opened House of Fabrics, selling not only fabric but a complete line of sewing notions, everything home sewers could want.

Dana Torchia sitting on a bull at Metcalf South Shopping Center. Stores in the background include House of Fabrics. Johnson County Museum

Over the years, they grew and had warehouses in the Northwest Industrial district at both Grand Boulevard and McGee Street, eventually adding a 40,000 square-foot building on Antioch Road in Merriam. They were doing well as sewing was a “gigantic business” for them.  By 1968, they totaled 128 franchised stores in 22 states, including 34 local stores in Kansas City and Independence in Missouri, and Topeka, Lawrence, Mission, and Overland Park in Kansas.

An ad for Eisen Mercantile from the Kansas City Star.

With this growth, they needed more space. They wanted a large warehouse to not only consolidate their existing warehouses, but also to revive their sidelined wholesale division.  They chose 18 acres at 82nd and I-35, 8101 Lenexa Drive. It was a new industrial area and was chosen because it was near Merriam, where most of their employees lived.  An industrial bond was secured with the city of Lenexa for over $3,000,000 and the architectural firm of Bloomgarten and Frohwerk was hired with another architect, Samuel R. Rosen.  This 208,000 square-foot building would have two floors, one for the offices, which would include “a circular entry foyer with towering external structures,” and one floor for the warehouse.  It would have elevators and a full-size store on the ground floor. Still thinking of their employees, they proposed tennis and shuffleboard courts with basketball and baseball areas. Finally, to complete the building, a beautiful circular design of the company’s logo was inlaid, in tile, on the front foyer floor.  This grand design consists of two threaded needles flanking the oversized E & M letters in the middle of the circle, with EISEN MERCANTILE along the top of the circle, and Division of Gambles along the bottom. Fifty years later, this design still grabs the attention. The gem of the building are the unique pillars that always draw the eye up to the sky. Harry Eisen called these concrete forms flower petals and said, “this was added for aesthetic purposes and to help give the building an identity.”  In 1970 the building’s outstanding lighting won a certificate in the industrial category for The Electric Association in their annual lighting competition.

Eisen Mercantile Logo inside the lobby of the Lee Co. building. Photo courtesy Extra Space Storage and Terri Bostic

The Eisen brothers stepped down in 1970 and 1972, not six years after Eisen Mercantile became a subsidiary of Gamble-Skogmo, Inc. Time marches on – everything was sold at 8101 Lenexa Drive and a post in The Kansas City Star was advertising for a new tenant.

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library


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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Seven: The End (2009 to 2016… and Beyond)

This is the seventh in a seven part series about the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Click here to read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.

empty Dippin' Dots kiosk

Dippin’ Dots, inside the Great Mall, 2015. (Photo by Mike Keller)

In January of 2009, the international economy was in sad shape and the long-struggling Great Mall of the Great Plains was down to 70% occupied. It was under this cloud that the new owners were announced. A group of local investors called Great Olathe Center LLC had purchased the Great Mall – which had been built in 1997 for between $110 and $120 million – for a mere $20.5 million. Talk about your discount centers!

Of the six investors, only David Block wished to be known publicly at the time. Block told the KC Star that the group hoped to rename and revitalize the mall. He felt that because Glimcher wasn’t located in the Kansas City area, and hadn’t owned any other properties in the region, they had been at a disadvantage in leasing and promoting the mall. He hoped local ownership would be able to get the mall going again.

Early plans called for additional signs to make the mall more visible from the highway, a new look inside the mall, entertainment venues, and opening up walkways that would cut through the center of the mall and make it easier for people to get from place to place. In an interview with the Kansas City Business Journal, he said that since the group had obtained the mall for such a low price, they hoped to rent to local and regional retailers for 30% less than competing centers in the area. Given the state of the economy, they didn’t expect national tenants to be opening new stores inside the mall for another couple of years.

In The Olathe News, Block told Jack Weinstein that outdoor access to stores would be a priority going forward, and he also hoped to make the mall a resource of sorts for Olathe – a place where charity and community events could be hosted. “We just have to figure out what to do about that carpet,” he joked.

According to the Kansas City Business Journal, Glimcher used the proceeds from the sale to pay most of a $30 million mortgage on the property. The recession was hitting real estate investment trusts hard, and it made sense for them to unload the property, even if it hurt. One bit from an article that stung me a little was this: “After the recession, rent rates should climb, and the mall’s value should soar. […] Unless the recession drags on for years and many more tenants leave the mall, it’s hard to imagine a downside to this deal.” How little we knew.

Even under the new ownership, 2009 brought many closures. Dress Barn Outlet, Lids for Less, Limited Too, Nautica, and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory closed. Noah’s Ark relocated to a different spot in Olathe. Most painfully, VF Factory Outlet (an anchor) closed and moved to the Legends in Kansas City, Kansas. Still, the lower rents encouraged some locals to give the mall a shot. Shop Baby Kisses (clothing, accessories, and tutus for infants) and Sazzy’s lingerie boutique opened up in the mall with a handful of other stores. Late in the summer, the Kansas City Business Journal profiled a handful of people who had been laid off from their jobs elsewhere and set up shop in the mall, including Tony Sun, who started the Osaka Teriyaki spot in the food court.

Outside entrance for Treasure Hunt. A green awning with red lettering.

Storefront of what was once Dillard’s, then VF Factory Outlet, then Treasure Hunt. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

In July, the mall hosted the Fourth again, and a couple of weeks later they threw a carnival in the northeast parking lot to bring people out who hadn’t visited the mall in a while.

In late December of 2009, The Kansas City Garden Railway Society set up a huge model railroad in a former store inside the mall. This was always one of my favorite things to see when I visited the mall in its later years. It was an enormous, very detailed model train set, and I remember it running a lot on the weekends. The article I found about the society moving into the mall described the non-store’s location as “in the fashion district of the Olathe mall,” which made me chuckle a little.

Outside mall entrance. The awning is yellow and billboard signs for the Great Mall stand outside.

The Fashion Entrance, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

2010 didn’t bring much news. A June article about malls in the difficult economy observed that with conspicuous consumption at a low point and department stores no longer a draw, many area malls were trying to draw in shoppers with “experiences.” Among the Great Mall’s attractions were several children’s play centers, a photo booth, the aforementioned model train, a mini golf course, and a 1955 fire engine.

An automated fortune teller booth stands in the middle of a mall hallway in front of the Home and Hobby store.

Step right up, and I will tell you what the future holds. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

That July some cash-strapped cities cancelled their fireworks shows, but Olathe’s went on as usual at the Great Mall.

In the fall, the new owners of the mall requested and received a Community Improvement District (CID) for the Great Mall. This added a 1.5% sales tax to items purchased at the mall that would raise money to first fund a study that would advise the owners on how to revitalize the mall, and later contribute about a quarter of the funds that would go to the potential $210 million redevelopment of the Great Mall.

A diagram of how the Great Mall of the Great Plains could be revitalized

The redevelopment plan pitched in 2010. (Source: PlanOlathe)

The CID excluded the seven restaurants around the mall, six of which were owned by a fellow in San Francisco who did not feel it was fair to burden his restaurants with additional sales tax if it wasn’t absolutely certain that this project would benefit them. The restaurants would have generated 15% to 20% of the tax had they been included, so their exclusion extended the timetable for the whole project.

Over the course of 2010 it was reported that Safari Park Amusements opened inside the mall, and Shop Baby Kisses doubled its space. Famous Labels and Scrappers Paradise, on the other hand, closed.

In June of 2011, the DMV moved from 151st and Ridgeview to a location inside the Great Mall. The new location gave them a lot more space.

That same month, the Kansas City Garden Railway Society attempted to make the Guinness Book of World Records for “longest model train.” The record was 894 feet, but they were only able to get 705 feet to run on their 3000-foot track.

A night shot behind the Great Mall. In the foreground are dumpsters and portapotties, and on the horizon are several lit hot air balloons.

A picture from 2012’s Great Midwest Balloon Festival at the Great Mall (Photo by Tabitha V on Foursquare)

July saw more fireworks and added the Great Midwest Balloon Festival a little later in the month. The previous year’s festival had been held in a field in Overland Park, but it was held at the Great Mall in 2011, 2012, and 2013, before moving to the Kansas Speedway in 2014. Over the years the festival featured musical acts (such as Shealeigh, Clay Walker, The Elders, and The Scott Perry Band), skydivers, carnival rides, fireworks, kite performances, inflatables, and a whole bunch of hot air balloons. Some years it attracted as many as 50,000 people.

A crowd of people with lit hot air balloons floating above them.

A picture from 2013’s Great Midwest Balloon Festival at the Great Mall (Photo by Michael L on Foursquare)

In a strange twist, Glimcher Realty Trust acquired Leawood’s Town Center Plaza for $139 million in September of 2011. According to the Kansas City Business Journal, it was less an actual purchase and more of an asset swap, where Glimcher traded their Polaris Towne Center in Columbus, Ohio for Leawood’s outdoor mall.

The most noteworthy Great Mall event from 2012 appears to have occurred in April, when a suspicious package was found at the mall. The Olathe Fire Department’s bomb squad evacuated the northeast corner of the mall and used the Remotec Andros F6B robot (aka “The Tin Man II”) to render the package safe. No details were given on what was inside the box, but everything was back to normal after a couple of hours, so I assume it was innocuous.

A parking lot directory for the Great Mall of the Great Plains

The parking lot guide, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

In June of 2013, the Great Mall’s Community Improvement District and accompanying tax were terminated. There was no article about it, just a formal notice in legalese in the The Olathe News, but it would seem to indicate that at this point, 2010’s plans to revitalize the mall were no longer on the table.

2014 was a relatively bustling year for the mall. In January, Skills to Succeed opened up Create: Art Studio, which taught art skills to individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. In April there was an article about Rock School KC, a rock band style music school in the Great Mall. And in June, the Great Mall hosted the Friends of the Johnson County Library’s Annual Sizzlin’ Summer Used Book Sale. Oddly enough, I was unable to find any mention of Fourth of July celebrations at the Great Mall in 2014.

A mall hallway. There are holes in the purple rug and empty kiosks and planters line the center aisle.

Sportibles, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

A handful of stores opened, and in June Sportibles expanded for a third time. Since 2004 Sportibles had gone from 1,500 square-feet, to 6,000, and finally to 25,000 in 2014. The year also brought some closures, such as Wetzel’s Pretzels and Claire’s Accessories (originally Claire’s Boutique), both original tenants. Hibbett Sports, which had been around since 2005 also closed.

One big opening came in October, when the Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Co. opened its 30th season in a new location inside the Great Mall. Previously the Martin City Melodrama had spent 14 years at Metcalf South Mall, which closed in September of 2014. Unfortunately, the Melodrama’s stay at the Great Mall would be very short-lived.

a tiled hallway leading up to the mall entrance of Zonkers.

Outside Zonkers. (Photo by Terri Bostic)

Before we get to the worst news, I’d like to take a minute to look around the Great Mall of the Great Plains one last time. I think that I only ever went to the mall once when it was in its heyday. I didn’t grow up particularly close to it. However, between 2010 and 2015, I walked around the mall with a friend on a pretty regular basis. Like Metcalf South Mall, it was just a nice place to go where we could walk around in a big, uncrowded, temperature-controlled space and chat about nothing in particular. There were plenty of random stores to poke around in. You could scope out the model train, pop into the store that had all the aquariums and animals, play some glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, wonder how old the gumballs in the enormous broken gumball machine in the food court were, marvel at the giant monkey outside Zonkers, and just bask in the late-90s glow of the place. In its final years, the Great Mall was like this barely-touched, abandoned time capsule that you could spend some time in every now and then. It might sound like I’m poking fun or only ironically appreciating the mall, but I’m really not. Johnson County can be a fairly cutthroat place for retail, where the hottest thing one month is gone the next, and there are crowds and traffic to contend with everywhere you go. It was nice to pop into the mall and see all of the uses the various spaces were being put to (a church, the Christmas Bureau, the DMV, the trains, etc.). It was clear that nobody was making a lot of money off of this, but it was cool to have a place like that.

A blacklit picture of a teenage boy sitting at a table with the words Party Zone lit above his head. a glowing green alien stands opposite him.

The author of this blog post in the Cosmic Mini Golf Party Zone, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

Which brings us to 2015.

In February of 2015, with occupancy down to about 50%, the Great Mall of the Great Plains announced that it would be closing in the fall. VanTrust Real Estate (apparently the entity over Great Olathe Center LLC) was managing the property at the time, and their vice president Jeff Smith told the KC Star that they needed to get the mall closed down so they could better plan the future of the area. Demolition seemed likely.

The Kansas City Business Journal reported that a retail study by the real estate feasibility company Jeff Green Partners had found that the mall could now only justify a fraction of its retail space. According to the report, “the structure, maintenance costs, and layout do not support preservation of the current building.”

VanTrust said they were working with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce and the Olathe Economic Development Council to determine what would be next for the area. Tim McKee of the Olathe Chamber said that they would be working with the remaining businesses in the mall and helping them relocate if they needed it.

Mall store front for a clothing shop. The name of the store is no longer present and a big white patch is in the middle of the awning. There is still merchandise in the store.

Mall entrance of what was once Dillard’s and later VF Factory Outlet. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

Purrfect Pets, a cat shelter that had moved into the Great Mall in late 2014 after Metcalf South closed, was understandably upset that their new facility (which they had upgraded at a cost of $12,000) was about to be shut down. However, one GoFundMe later, they landed on their feet at a space inside Oak Park Mall, where they still exist as of early 2020. The Martin City Melodrama expressed similar disappointment in the KC Star and also started a GoFundMe. They survived the misfortune and moved first to Crown Center and then to Grandview, where they remain to this day.

In April, dozens of volunteers moved the Johnson County Christmas Bureau out of the mall. According to Jennifer Bhargava in the KC Star, “volunteers on Saturday included everyone from the St. Thomas Aquinas High School rugby team to the Leawood Rotary Club. […] UPS donated trucks and drivers to take the boxes and equipment to four different storage facilities in Lenexa.” The Bureau opened in the not-yet-demolished Metcalf South later that year, and although I couldn’t figure out every place they’ve been since then, it looks like they have found other unoccupied retail spaces, and still open up every year.

In July, the Great Mall hosted its last Fourth of July celebration. Aquariums Wholesale and Pet Supply moved to around the Olathe Landing area at 135th and I-35, and Sportibles moved over there with them but closed that particular location in 2016.

Zonkers closed on August 2nd. Dickinson Theatres had been sold to B&B Theatres in late 2014, turning the Great Mall 16 into the B&B Olathe Great Mall 10. It closed on August 17th. The DMV closed and moved out in December. Soon, the only store still open was the Burlington Coat Factory.

On Monday July 11th, 2016 – almost nineteen years after it opened – the demolition of the mall began. It continued for several weeks. Today all that remains on the spot is the Burlington Coat Factory, the surrounding restaurants and hotels, and a big field. I wasn’t able to figure out why Burlington stayed up, but it must be doing good enough business to justify its existence.

An aerial view of fields, buildings, and roads.

An aerial view of the mall area in 2020 (Photo from Bing Maps)

Indian Springs Shopping Center also came down in 2016. Metcalf South Mall came down in 2017, after being closed for a couple of years.

In late 2016, the Olathe City Council created a Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bond district around the Great Mall site. STAR bonds were/are meant to provide money to developers for large tourist attractions in Kansas, and although Olathe didn’t have concrete plans for any major tourist attractions at the time, they wanted to declare the district ahead of time in case something appealing came up.

In 2018 the Kansas City Business Journal reported talk of a $300 million project at the former Great Mall site that would include a hockey arena, “interactive golf concept,” gym, movie theater, restaurants, retail, and hotels. Later that year the project was named “Mentum.” However, a rival project in Overland Park was soon announced called “Bluhawk.” The projects competed throughout 2019, trying to show how they would be major tourist destinations that deserved STAR bonds and/or other tax incentives. In October of 2019, the state awarded $66 million in STAR bonds to Overland Park’s Bluhawk project, making Olathe’s Mentum look less likely, but not impossible.

In March 2020, Olathe and the developers announced that they were no longer pursuing STAR bonds, but still planned to move the development forward. However, this is a history blog, and we are getting dangerously close to the present, so I will conclude.

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Six: Attention Shoppers, The Mall Will Be Closing In Fifteen Years (2000 to 2008)

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, five, and seven.

An aerial view of the Great Mall of the Great Plains surrounded by green space and other buildings.

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 Dickinson Theatre's box office and snack bar inside the Great Mall of the Great Plains.

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.”

A square of geometrically patterned carpet.

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.

An empty Johnny Rockets store.

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.

A mall hallway with various signs hanging from the ceiling.

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.

A mall hallway with purple carpet and seating and planters down the center.

Mall hallway, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

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 mall hallway with kiosks down the center aisle.

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.

Store entrance to Steve & Barry's

The entrance to Steve & Barry’s. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

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.

Blacklit minigolf course with space themed decorations.

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).

Mall store entrance to Perfume Plaza

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.”

Outside entrance to Zonkers. A purple awning with each letter in Zonkers a different color.

Zonkers, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

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 with green/blue patterned carpet and trees running down the center aisle.

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library


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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Four: There Will Be Carpet (1997)

This is the fourth part in a seven part series about the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Here are the links to parts one, two, three, five, six, and seven.

Black and white aerial image of Johnson County with a scattering of buildings. A larger building is in the lower right hand corner.

An aerial view of the completed mall in 1998.

After more than a decade of planning (and revising plans, and waiting, and going back to the drawing board, and planning some more, and then finally building), Olathe was about to get its mall.

On July 23rd, 1997, the Great Mall of the Great Plains held a job fair at the Olathe Holiday Inn. The Kansas City Business Journal reported that more than 2,000 people showed up from all over the metro area, quickly putting to rest fears that Johnson County’s low unemployment rate would cause problems. The mall’s general manager, Jeff Dozier, estimated that mall tenants were able to fill at least 1,000 positions on that day alone, and store managers said that they would have enough staff to open in August.

A colorful portrait of the box office at the Great Mall of the Great Plains.

The Great Mall 16’s box office in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson)

Dickinson Theatres’ deluxe, 57,000 square-foot Great Mall 16 theater opened on July 25th, slightly ahead of the rest of the mall. The KC Star’s film critic, Robert Butler, wrote a glowing review of the theater, saying, “Its decorative details seem to have been fashioned from surplus NASA parts. Its lobby and corridors are big, airy and intentionally dark; the deep purple walls are splattered with droplets of white and this, combined with ultraviolet lighting, gives the impression that moviegoers are walking through an endless starfield. […] It’s easy to imagine yourself at a busy spaceport, awaiting a flight to another planet.” Their opening day lineup featured Air Force One (which was the theater’s first film to play for the public, starting at 10:15 AM), Contact, Nothing to Lose, George of the Jungle, Good Burger, Face Off, Men In Black, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Hercules. More than 25,000 customers visited the theater in its first weekend.

A colorful picture of a movie theater lobby and snack bar.

The Great Mall 16’s lobby in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson)

Finally, on Thursday August 14th, 1997, it was time for the rest of the mall to open.

Cars zoomed around the Great Mall’s parking lot early in the morning, gradually filling in remaining spaces closest to the movie theater entrance on the north side of the mall. There was a stage full of seated developers, city officials, and various other individuals who had been involved with the project. A dozen or so packed rows of folding chairs faced the stage. A woman (who I was unable to identify for sure, but I think it was Louise DuArt, a comedian and impersonator who did a series of television and print advertisements with the mall) welcomed everybody. A young man sang the national anthem. Herb Glimcher, David Glimcher, Michael Glimcher, Jordon Perlmutter, Ethan Penner (of Nomura Asset Corp., Glimcher’s financier), and Kansas’s Lieutenant Governor Gary Sherrer all gave short speeches, and at the end a car was given away.

Finally, just a little before 10:00, almost twenty people with scissors, plus a few kids from the YMCA, all approached the ribbon stretched across the front of the stage. They snipped, hundreds of balloons were released into the sky, brass band music started blasting through speakers, and the mall was opened. Shoppers flooded inside the 812,000 square-foot mall looking for bargains. You can watch the whole ceremony on YouTube here.

Entrance to the movie theater at the Great Mall of the Great Plains

The movie theater entrance as it looked in 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

A handful of stores weren’t set up in time for the grand opening, and a several unleased spaces remained empty, but shoppers had plenty to choose from, including big names like: Burlington Coat Factory, Big Dog Outlet, Bugle Boy Outlet, Claire’s Boutique, Designer Shoe Warehouse, Dillard’s Clearance Center (nabbed from Indian Springs Shopping Center), Eddie Bauer, Famous Footwear, Foot Locker Outlet, Function Junction, Hot Topic, K.B. Toy, Kitchen & Co., Levi’s, Linens N Things, London Fog Outlet, Marshalls, Noble House Jewelry, Old Navy, Oshman’s SuperSports USA, and a Tommy Hilfiger Warehouse Store.

There were also smaller names: The Gothic Shop, The Great Train Store, The Icing, Let’s Talk Cellular, Just Sports, Kansas Konnection, Leather Mode, MacBirdie Golf, Ritz Camera, Rug City, San Francisco Music Box Company, and There’s Only Music Stuff.

Food choices upon opening included: Cinnabon, Cocina Fresca, Flamers, Frulatti, Gloria Jean’s Gourmet Coffees, Johnny Rockets, Mr. Bulky, Nacho Fast, Orange Julius, Pizza USA, Topsy’s Popcorn, and Wetzel’s Pretzels.

And, of course, let’s not forget the best names in the bunch: Jeepers (the indoor amusement park for kids) and Foozles (a book and calendar store).

An entrance to the Great Mall of the Great Plains at the Sports & Adventure store location.

The Sports and Adventure Entrance, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

Now, for accuracy’s sake I want to say that technically a few of the anchor stores (which had their own doors to the outside) did a soft opening earlier in the week, but Thursday was the grand opening for the majority of the mall.

As they entered, shoppers saw that the mall had a “racetrack” design, meaning it was basically a big long block of stores in the middle, a wide hallway (racetrack) going in a circle around that, and then a long line of stores forming a square around that, all enclosed to be one space. It was divided up into four sections: Fashions, Home and Hobby, Sports and Adventure, and Technology and Entertainment. Customers could park near the store or section they wanted to visit and get in and out quickly, or they could stay longer to tour the whole mall.

As for the aesthetic? In an August 20th article, Mike Hendricks of the KC Star wrote a better description of it than I ever could: “The new Great Mall of the Great Plains is retailing in the surreal. Salvador Dali with a cash register. Black-and-beige-checked carpeting collides with purple and black stripes, which crashes into a rust and peach floral print rug, then careens into a leopard-skin-patterned carpet dyed purple, yellow and black. Suspended from one ceiling, lighting fixtures that look like stalactites in Bridal Cave. Sprouting from the floor, green pyramids resembling miniature Aztec temples. Here and there, steel globes the size of Volkswagens spin atop towers constructed from some giant Erector set. And from the belly of these Erector beasts, television sets bark helpful shopping hints to weary shoppers resting in oversized, vinyl-upholstered chairs and benches straight from the set of some sequel to ‘Bus Stop.’”

A heavily patterned carpet runs into a gold animal print carpet.

A sampling of the carpet on display at the Great Mall. 2013 (Photo from Kym H on Foursquare)

Personal note: I’ve been working on this history on and off for about six months, and every time I’ve mentioned it to somebody who is familiar with the mall, they have talked about the carpet.

Oshman’s SuperSports USA’s 65,000 square-foot store was one of the most popular draws in the opening days, and it sounded pretty cool. The KC Star’s Joyce Smith wrote that it had “a batting cage, a basketball court, a golf simulator, an in-line skating lane, a putting green and a tennis/racquetball court.”

You can watch an hour of footage of the mall’s opening day on YouTube here.

Upon opening, the mall was 90% occupied with eight anchors (depending on how you defined that), and 130 other retailers. The mall expected 50,000 people on opening day, and reported that nearly 73,000 showed up. According to the Kansas City Business Journal, the mall had logged its one-millionth visitor by mid-September. Around the same time the head of Olathe’s traffic unit, Sergeant Greg Scott, told the KC Star that during peak shopping hours, cars were often lined up on the 151st Street exit of I-35. It seemed like the developers and Olathe had a hit on their hands. Developers, mall staff, Olathe officials, and regular residents alike expressed satisfaction and pride with Olathe’s unique new mall.

People were optimistic. Estimates at the time were that the mall would generate $900,000 in new sales tax revenue during the next year, and could create as many as 3,000 jobs. The mall’s tourism director was organizing with tour bus companies, hoping for 200 busloads of tourists to visit by the end of 1997, and then another 300 busloads throughout 1998. Plans were still on for the entertainment addition, the so-called “Phase II” of the mall, which would bring the mall to 1,200,000 square-feet (the size of Oak Park Mall at the time) and was expected to be finished in 1999.

An entrance to the Great Mall of the Great Plains. All signage has been removed.

The Home and Hobby Entrance, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

1997 chugged along with a few more newsworthy items. For example: On September 3rd, Erin Murphy, the actress who played Tabitha on Bewitched made an appearance at Autographs Plus inside the mall.

Perhaps more substantial news that fall came when Kansas City, Missouri, mayor Emmanuel Cleaver met with suburban representatives and called upon the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to do a better job of connecting the urban poor to suburban jobs. Public transportation options were discussed – such as a commuter rail line (using existing tracks) that would connect downtown Kansas City to Olathe – but no clear path of action seemed to emerge.

On a related note, the mall held another job fair in October, with 50 stores looking to fill 350 to 500 positions for the holidays.

The first mention I could find of a store leaving the mall – other than the Tommy Hilfiger store, which was only ever a ten-day test store – came in November when Dinamation left and was quickly replaced by a Converse shoe store. Dinamation was apparently a company that made robotic dinosaurs for displays in malls, and later had some of their work featured at the old T-Rex Cafe at the Legends.

In late November, Kitchen & Co. brought the Johnson County Community College ice-carving team into the mall to create a sleigh-and-reindeer sculpture with chainsaws. And that December, the mall was truly welcomed into the community when the mayor’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony was moved from its traditional downtown location and into the Great Mall’s food court. Choirs from three Olathe high schools performed with the Olathe Community Chorus, and KMBC Channel 9’s weatherman Brian Busby and sportscaster David Stewart served as the masters of ceremony.

As the year closed out, there were reports of it being a great year for area retailers (other than the Indian Springs mall, which had lost its Dillard’s), and a very good year for Olathe, thanks in part to the Great Mall.

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Three: If You Build It, They Will Come (1995 to Mid-1997)

This is a third in a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Read parts one, two, four, five, six, and seven.

A black and white aerial view of farmland with buildings scattered throughout and roads bisecting it.

An aerial view of the land the Great Mall of the Great Plains would eventually sit on, 1996.

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library


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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Two: A Bridge to the Big Time (1992 to 1994)

This is the second of a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Read parts one, three, four, five, six, and seven.

A black and white aerial view of farmland with buildings scattered throughout and roads bisecting the image.

An aerial view of the land the Great Mall of the Great Plains would eventually sit on, 1991.

If you have read Romeo and Juliet, you probably remember the classic line, “A mall by any other name would smell as sweet.” That’s not exactly the line, but it’s something like that. Anyways, I have to assume that phrase was on everybody’s mind in October of 1992 when Jordon Perlmutter & Co. announced that in a joint venture with fellow developers Petrie Dierman Kughn of Washington D.C. they would be building a one-story, 1,000,000 square-foot outlet mall in Olathe. They intended to buy another thirty-four acres from the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership soon. Construction was expected to start in the fall of 1993, and the mall would be open by the spring of 1995. The mall would feature outlets for high-end department stores, seven to nine anchors, discount retailers, a food court, and possibly also a movie theater. No tenants were signed yet, but developers were optimistic.

And the mall’s name? “Southpark Plaza” was out. Now it was going to be (cue trumpet fanfare) The Great Mall of the Great Plains.

By 1992, after a few years with a sluggish economy, American shoppers were flocking to outlet malls. The Lawrence Riverfront Plaza Factory Outlet had opened in 1990 and enjoyed enough success that another company built an outlet mall basically just across the river in the early ‘90s. All around the country outlet malls were a bright spot in otherwise cloudy retail atmosphere. Regular shopping centers in general were considered overbuilt, and it made sense at the time for the developers and Olathe to bet on an outlet mall, even if it was unconventional for one to be so close to a highly-populated area.

At the time there was an unwritten rule called the “sensitivity barrier” that discouraged outlet centers from building within 40 miles of places where regular department stores existed, since the outlets would potentially be selling the same merchandise for much less. (They at least wanted to make you drive for it!) But if it was unconventional at the time, it seems that retail norm was eroding, because as the Great Mall was being pitched, the owners of the ailing Indian Springs Shopping Center in Kansas City, Kansas (a mere twenty miles away) were considering converting their mall into an outlet mall. This upped the pressure on Olathe to act quickly in getting everything approved for the developers.

This time the Great Mall’s developers requested $85 million in industrial revenue bonds (which would make them eligible for tax abatements under Kansas law), and property tax abatements to the tune of 50% for ten years. They said the property tax incentives would help them draw in tenants, and they couldn’t finalize their additional financing for the project until they had commitments from half of their tenants.

According to a city report, the mall was going to generate $2.7 million per year in property taxes for Olathe (without abatement). It could be expected to generate as much as $207 million in retail sales annually, and employ 1,800 people. In other places, outlet malls had been popular with tourists, and from the Great Mall’s beginning it seems that bringing in tourists was recognized by all parties as an essential part of the mall’s success strategy. The report estimated that half of the sales in the mall would be to people living outside of Johnson County, although the developers did tell the KC Star that the 2 million people in the Kansas City area alone should generate enough business to sustain the mall.

In December, the Olathe City Council voted unanimously to approve of the $85 million in industrial revenue bonds and the property tax abatement. However, there was a catch. The City Council included a performance agreement, saying that if the mall failed to produce a certain amount of sales tax revenue, the city would be allowed to end or reduce the property tax abatement. They also required that the developers open the mall by 1996, lest they lose at least a year of abatement.

Some citizens, journalists, and officials from surrounding cities criticized the tax incentives to varying degrees, saying that they were cheating residents by lowering the amount of money that could have gone to public services. It was also argued that existing Olathe retailers who were paying full property tax would now be at an unfair disadvantage when competing with the mall. The criticism voiced by a handful of officials from surrounding cities was that this meant they would probably also have to start offering greater tax incentives to draw businesses in, and there was mild concern that they would lose sales tax revenue as Olatheans started shopping in their own city more (which, for Olathe, was the main point of the mall).

However, proponents pointed out that residents wouldn’t benefit at all if the mall wasn’t built. In the KC Star, Charley Vogt of the Olathe Chamber of Commerce was quoted saying, “50% of something is a lot better than 100% of nothing.” Many Olatheans were also happy because if abatements secured a mall, and the mall paid off for the city, the tax burden of homeowners stood to decrease. No less than Olathe’s mayor, Jacob F. Ruf, weighed in on the matter, writing in to the KC Star to defend the decision and provide some optimistic numbers. He said that the City of Olathe had carefully considered the mall investment, and believed it would be good for Olathe, Johnson County, and the entire metropolitan area.

The next month (January of 1993), the KC Star reported that Kansas representatives were discussing revisions to abatement procedures. The statewide mill levy for schools was allowing “taxing entities” (such as cities) to grant tax breaks without impacting their local schools, as the money would be made up elsewhere throughout the state. Legislators hoped to change that in order to reinstate accountability and make things fairer across Kansas.

That same month, the Aetna Life Insurance Co., which owned the Indian Springs Shopping Center, was discussing expanding their mall and redefining it as an outlet center called The Great Plains Marketplace. Kansas City, Kansas, mayor Joe Steineger specifically stated their wish to get the project started before Olathe’s Great Mall, because the area probably could not sustain two outlet malls. The race between Indian Springs and the Great Mall would continue throughout 1993.

Clearly, the Great Mall was making waves from its earliest days. The mall was not without some controversy, but city officials felt it was worth the risk. Millions of dollars left Olathe every year as residents went to other cities to shop. The mall stood to increase their annual sales tax revenue 50%, from $4 million to $6 million. Revenue like that would help the mostly residential city lower the property tax burden on homeowners, and make Olathe an even more appealing place to live. And on top of that, many city officials hoped that the Great Mall would give Olathe an identity and make it a destination for people in the Kansas City area and beyond.

In January of 1994, the Great Mall’s developers released a partial tenant list of the retailers they had been able to secure. The anchors were SuperSports USA, Linens N Things, Marshalls, Service Merchandise, and Fun Factory (an arcade). Among the smaller stores were Ballard Sports Outlet, Benetton Outlet, Book Warehouse, Claire’s Boutique Outlet, Famous Footwear and No Nonsense Outlet. And, since it wouldn’t be a mall without fast food and candy, the mall would also contain a Mr. Bulky store, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Blue Chip Cookies, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and Sbarro. Many of these stores were new to the Kansas City area, allaying some fears that the mall would cannibalize already existing businesses.

In addition to the partial tenant list, the developers announced that the newest plan for the mall was that it would be 1.2 million square-feet (the same as the nearby Oak Park Mall, which hadn’t added on its Nordstrom store yet) and have 175 stores. It was now expected to employ around 1,900 people, and would hopefully still enjoy the previously mentioned $207 million in sales every year.

Two days later, the Aetna Life Insurance Co. announced that they were dropping their plans to redevelop the Indian Springs Shopping Center.

By summer, construction of the interchange at 151st St and I-35 had begun, and street, sewer, and waterline projects were underway on the mall property. After some rezoning, grading was planned for the fall, and the mall was expected to open a year and a half later in the spring of 1996. Total construction costs for the mall were estimated at $85 million.

The interchange was completed in November, seven months ahead of schedule. The interchange was expected to open up an economic gateway for Olathe, much like the one at 119th and I-35, not just for the mall, but for all kinds of other economic opportunities. It also made the Olathe Medical Center much more accessible. One of my favorite things that I found while researching the Great Mall came in a November 30th KC Star article by John C. Patterson detailing the celebration of the opening of the interchange: “Two school buses loaded with business leaders and various government officials crossed the 151st Street interchange Tuesday in celebration of the official opening of the $28.5 million exit.” Talk about a party!

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part One: The Prehistory of the Great Mall (1987 to 1991)

This is the first in a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Read parts two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

A black and white aerial view of farmland bisected by a few small roads.

An aerial view of the land the Great Mall of the Great Plains would eventually sit on, 1986. (Source: Johnson County AIMS)

In January of 1987, in a very different Olathe than the one we know and love today, the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership – a group of local investors led by retiring City Commissioner Larry Huckleberry – announced plans for a retirement community, an executive hotel, offices, and a 700,000 square-foot mall that they wanted to build in an area near Interstate 35. The area was bound on the north by US 56, on the east by K-7, on the south by 151st Street, and on the west by Lone Elm Road. The project was called Southpark, and although plans for the mall would change quite a bit over the next ten years, this appears to have been the first official step in the creation of The Great Mall of the Great Plains.

The Southpark developers had secured about $100 million in financing for the first phase of their project by May, and wanted to break ground in June. However, it seems that waiting for the city to review and approve the plat – coupled with the lack of a sewer line in the area – held the project up. At the time there were some lawsuits between landowners and the city that were delaying the construction of a sewer line, and until those suits could be resolved, the Southpark project could not be approved.

In early 1988, Jordon Perlmutter & Co., a Denver developer (which I will occasionally refer to as JP&Co. for brevity’s sake), agreed to buy 70 acres from the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership with plans to build a $50 million indoor shopping mall called the Southpark Plaza. The initial plan was for a two-story, 550,000 square-foot mall, and there were hopes of breaking ground in the spring of 1989 and having the mall completed as early as 1990. As far as I could tell, the sewer line situation remained unresolved until a few years later, but it does not seem to have been holding back JP&Co.’s plans in 1988. Within months of announcing their first plan, they announced a revised plan which upgraded the mall to 900,000 square-feet.

The City of Olathe was excited about the potential for the project to bring in new business, feeling it would complement the Olathe Medical Center and the new Holiday Inn very well. On top of that, JP&Co. estimated that the mall would create 1,650 jobs and generate $6.7 million in sales tax plus $1.5 million in property tax annually. Olathe quickly began plans to build an estimated $30 million interchange with an overpass taking 151st St across I-35, which developers felt was crucial to the success of the project. (Olathe would share the cost of the overpass with the Kansas Department of Transportation, I believe.)

Next, probably inspired in part by looming property tax reappraisals, JP&Co. requested that Olathe grant them ten years of property tax abatement, saying that it would be necessary in order to attract anchor stores given Olathe’s population and demographics. The Kansas City Star’s real estate editor, Chris Lester, was not alone in observing that Olathe could not sustain a mall alone. Most of the shoppers the mall would need, he said, lived north and east of Olathe, closer to Oak Park Mall and Metcalf South Shopping Center. However, he might have been alone when he wisely noted, “Miscalculations about the pace of future growth have hindered Independence Center and Metro North Shopping Center, two malls at the outer fringes of the metropolitan area where vacancies remained high and sales volume low for years after completion.” I mean, he probably wasn’t completely alone, but maybe he wasn’t the most popular fellow in the room.

In June, Olathe granted JP&Co. a seven-year, $11 million dollar property tax abatement. There was some grumbling in opinion columns, such as Michael Grimaldi noting in the Star that, “if the Olathe market is such that it will support a mall, then a developer should recognize the profit potential and build one without tax abatements.” But many also noted that tax incentives certainly weren’t unheard of, and since they enabled Olathe to get their mall and start winning back sales tax dollars from other municipalities, the strategy made good sense.

Then the economy dipped a bit. The Federal Reserve’s battle against inflation tightened monetary policy, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated several tax shelters for real estate investments, causing many investors to sell their assets, thereby lowering real estate prices across the country. News about the mall became very scarce until a full year later in June of 1989 when it was reported that the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership’s sale of 71 acres of land to JP&Co. was complete.

The plan was now for a 950,000 square-foot mall, presumably still two-stories. In October Jay Perlmutter, a partner with the company, told the Star that they were focusing on securing tenants, and that once that was settled, construction would take about 2.5 years, meaning the mall would open by late 1992. But the economy didn’t improve for another couple of years, and plans for the Southpark Plaza seem to have petered out.

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 Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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Emily Bluejacket and the Shawnee Indian Mission

Color postcard of the exterior of the West building of the Methodist Shawnee mission. The two-story brick building at the center is partially obscured by trees and shrubs. The building has two prominent chimneys at the gable end. A landscaped yard in the foreground has numerous flowering shrubs and trees. A planter is in the foreground. A white bench is behind one tree to the left of the building. The image has a narrow white border. Gray colored text in the bottom margin:

Shawnee Methodist Mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

The Shawnee Methodist Mission was originally located around present day Turner, Wyandotte County, but in 1839, it relocated to Johnson County at 3403 W 53rd St, in Fairway.  At one time, there were 13 small buildings and 3 large buildings, but the 3 larger buildings, East, West, and North, are all that remain on the campus today.  Twenty-three different Indian nations were represented including the Shawnee from Ohio. Because of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a treaty was signed giving the Ohio Shawnee lands in Kansas.  The Shawnee Methodist Mission was a manual training school, where they learned basic academics, manual arts, and agriculture until 1862.

The First Territorial Capital of Kansas was in Pawnee, part of present day Fort Riley, but those in the legislature wanted to move closer to Missouri, so for 23 days in 1855, the mission served as the second capital of the Kansas Territory.  After 1862, the location included “a boarding house, a brothel, a frequent gathering spot for rowdies and ruffians passing through the open spaces and as a speakeasy”.(1)   During the Civil War it served as barracks for the Union troops.  There was very little upkeep after the closing of the school.  However, in 1927 the state acquired the property.  Work to restore the property commenced and the North building was completed in 1942.

Black and white film negative of 13 young women standing outside in the snowy yard in front of a building at the Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission. The women wear long dark skirts and light colored shirtwaists. Several of the women wear white aprons and/or jackets. Most of the women wear their hair tied back into buns at the crown of their heads. At least 7 women are holding snowballs. The group is gathered in the snowy yard directly in front of a large tree. One two-story building of the Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission is partly visible in the left part of the image.

Women at the Shawnee Indian Mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

Black and white informal photograph of the exterior of the Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission's north building. This scene shows the partially gutted building. The two story building has a side gabled roof and brick walls. The stone foundation is also partly visible. There are piles of bricks near the corner of the building at the left edge of photograph. There is a black

Shawnee Indian Methodist mission under reconstruction (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)

The North building was used as a dormitory and school for girls.  They learned spinning, weaving and other domestic arts.  Some of the Shawnee embraced the Methodist religion and approved their children’s attendance.  Some of the children were happy to go to a mission school because they were fed better than when they lived at home.  However, they also were given new names, new clothes, and their hair was cut on admittance to the school.

Black and white photograph of the exterior of the Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission's North building. The two-story brick building has a rough-faced stone foundation, a side gabled roof, rectangular brick chimneys on either end of the roof, and a wide inset porch spanning most of the width of the building. The porch has white, classical columns as porch supports. Surrounding the building is a grassy yard where several large trees are growing. In the foreground at the right side of the bottom edge of the photo is a road.

Shawnee Indian Methodist mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)

One little Shawnee girl, Emily, whose parents were Reverend Lewis McNiff, a white man, and Math-Ah-Pease, attended the school.  Emily’s mother Math-Ah-Pease married again to a man by the name of James Blue Jacket, hence Emily Bluejacket. Records show she was at the mission in 1844 as Emily Bluejacket but they also differ on her age.  According to the 1857 Kansas State Census an Emily Bluejacket was at the mission was 18.

The 1854 Treaty with The Shawnee stated that each single Shawnee person was entitled to 200 acres.  Emily Bluejacket was entitled to 200 acres and part of her land was where Grinders in Lenexa is today, SE 1/4 of section 4, township 013S, range 024E.  We find that Emily married Charles Barth in 1859 who took off to seek his fortune during the gold rush in California, never to return.  She then married Joseph Nipp in 1866 and had 2 boys, and eventually moved to Oklahoma.  The land changed hands several times, including the owner Icy Snow Beard in the 1930s, until it was purchased by Endicott Properties and a restaurant, Stonewall Inn opened as a restaurant with a pub-like atmosphere.  This restaurant closed down in 2002 but Grinders Stonewall owned by Jeff Rumaner, opened in 2014 after 8 months of renovations.

Photograph of L-plan hotel in the national folk style with dormers and varied gable roof. Stonewall Inn painted on awning over doorway. American flag on roof. Chimney on side of building.

Stonewall Inn (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

(1)Thomas Johnson’s Story and the History of Fairway, Kansas, by Joe H. Vaughan, pg 14

Editor’s Note: There will be more JoCoHistory blogs in the future detailing a fuller history of the Mission, and the Johnson County Museum will host a travelling exhibit about Native American boarding schools in 2023.

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