"It is a proud, proud day for all of us," declared Mark Taylor, lieutenant governor for the state of Georgia, speaking at the grand opening of Mall of Georgia at Mill Creek, located in Gwinnett County, Ga., northeast of the city of Atlanta.

His remarks made initial concerns about the development a distant memory.

Gwinnett County commissioners, who also spoke during the festivities, recalled questioning the construction of such a large-scale project in small-town Buford, Ga., despite projections that the surrounding area was expected to grow considerably in the years to come.

At the time Mall of Georgia was first proposed, the Atlanta metropolitan area already had a number of regional malls, including one located only 10 minutes from the site. Many in the industry wondered if Atlanta could support even more retail development.

Questions arose about securing anchor commitments, ensuring community growth, and marketing a project in such a way that would enhance Atlanta's retail market rather than create competitive struggles.

But as the doors opened to the massive complex on Friday, Aug. 13, the development was hailed as a tremendous accomplishment. During the mall's opening weekend, more than 300,000 people wound their way through the 1.7 million sq. ft. complex.

Present at the opening ceremony were the two men touted as the original visionaries for Mall of Georgia - local developers Ben Carter (CEO of Ben Carter Properties) and Scott Hudgens. In the early stages, the two partnered with New York-based Corporate Property Investors (CPI). Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group entered the picture late last year when it acquired CPI and all of its assets. When Simon came on board, only three leases had been signed for the project.

The mall opened with five anchors secured, one of which was announced during the festivities. "Rich's will be joining Mall of Georgia next fall," said Tom Schneider, senior vice president of development for Simon. Other anchors are Dillard's, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom, opening in March 2000.

The trade area around the mall also saw drastic changes from conception to opening. Today, Gwinnett County ranks as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation with a population in excess of 750,000 people.

Standing out from the crowd If the story ended there, Mall of Georgia would be remembered as just another superregional mall. What sets this development apart is how it incorporates a traditional mall setting with other components, including a 140,000 sq. ft. village reminiscent of an old-fashioned town square.

The pedestrian-styled streetscape adjoins the mall and features lifestyle tenants and restaurants, an interactive fountain, and a 500-seat amphitheater for outdoor concerts and gatherings. The mall tenants that line the village benefit from presence in the mall as well as from the village.

The complex also features junior anchors Galyan's, Bed Bath & Beyond and Havertys Furniture as well as a seven-story, 3-D IMAX Theater and a 20-screen Regal Cinema.

Opening this fall is an 80-acre nature park that will include an interpretive nature center (opening spring 2000) and more than two miles of pathways and bridges through preserved Georgia wetlands. During the grand opening celebration, approximately 4,000 Monarch butterflies were released into the crowd.

The mall opened with a total of 90 tenants, including department stores and junior anchors. According to Shari Simon, vice president of corporate marketing for Simon, approximately 45 more tenants are expected to open by the end of October. Overall, the mall is 85% leased, she says.

Unopened stores didn't seem to deter visitors, however. Within 15 minutes of the mall's opening, more than 10,000 people had passed through its doors, Simon says.

Unlike typical regional malls, Mall of Georgia was designed to be more of a tourist destination, drawing from South Carolina and Tennessee, Simon explains. As a result, the company has already hired a tourism director for the project. Further enhancing the tourism factor is the design of the center, which takes visitors on a trip through Georgia (see accompanying sidebar).

Its role as a tourist destination helps distinguish Mall of Georgia from other nearby retail centers. The Simon organization owns the complex's closest competitor, Gwinnett Place. While the company expects its newest project to affect pedestrian traffic at Gwinnett Place initially, it does not see any far-reaching damage, Simon says.

Although the retail industry has yet to see how the Mall of Georgia story plays out, it appears that Simon is as prepared as anyone for what lies ahead. Its marketing tactics are in place, the local community is growing as expected, anchors are secured, leases are signed and the doors have opened. In short, the first big hurdle has been cleared.