In the late 1980s, when the owners of Mall of America -- Indianapolis-based Simon DeBartolo Group Inc.; New York-based Teacher's Insurance & Annuity Association; and Edmonton, Alberta-based Triple Five Corp. -- released plans to create the largest shopping and entertainment center in the United States in Bloomington, Minn., many critics said it would never be built. Once the 4.2 million sq. ft. center opened in 1992, some of the same critics said no one would ever shop there twice and that its retail tenants were doomed to fail.

Five years and more than 160 million visitors later, the mall has proven those critics wrong. Not only has Mall of America maintained its appeal to locals and tourists, but its occupancy has held steady in the low 90 percent range.

"We had to overcome a lot of negativity that was based on misconception and misinformation," says John Wheeler, general manager for Mall of America. "Before the mall opened, the overwhelming local sentiment was that the center was too big to shop regularly ... that locals would visit once to see what it was like, and never again.

"Fortunately, Mall of America sells itself," he continues. "You only need one visit to see that it is not the inconvenient monstrosity it was rumored to be."

A hometown favorite Statistics generated by the mall's marketing efforts indicate that as many as 39 percent of Mall of America's visitors are from outside a 150-mile radius, and the majority of shoppers are from the metropolitan Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

"Local shoppers are familiar with the layout of the mall now. They know where to park to get where they need to go," says Wheeler. "Shoppers are attracted to our strong anchors -- Nordstrom, Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Sears -- and the large selection of specialty stores (approximately 520), many of which aren't found anywhere else in the area, and in some cases, anywhere else in the world."

The center's shopper-friendly design also has played a large part in maintaining traffic. Mall of America is square with an anchor located at each corner. Knott's Camp Snoopy, a 7-acre theme park, is found at the center of the square. Each side of the square -- or "street" -- has a distinctly different look, theme and color scheme to help visitors navigate. The designer and architect for Mall of America was The Jerde Partnership Inc., Los Angeles.

"When plans for Mall of America were announced, the overwhelming question I heard was 'Why Minnesota?,'" says Maureen Hooley Bausch, associate general manager for the center. "But with the weather we have here, the answer seemed so obvious.

"Although Minneapolis is a fairly large city, there aren't many indoor entertainment options in the winter. While it might be 20 degrees below zero outside, Mall of America has a year-round temperature of approximately 70 degrees and live trees, plus great shopping, some of the areas best restaurants and a lot of fun, family attractions."

The latest amusement tenant to join Mall of America is Underwater World, a 1.2 million gallon aquarium that is home to approximately 15,000 fish. Each visitor is given a headset that provides a guided tour of the attraction, while a moving walkway takes them through a 400-ft.-long acrylic tunnel. Underwater World displays more than 40 varieties of fish in four different habitats that recreate a Minnesota lake, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and a coral reef off the coast of Belize.

In addition to Knott's Camp Snoopy, other amusement attractions that opened with the Mall of America in 1992 include LEGO(R) Imagination Center, an interactive LEGO showcase that is decorated to look like a whimsical, three-level factory with 30 giant models created from LEGO bricks; Golf Mountain, a two-level, 18-hole miniature golf course; and a 14-screen General Cinema Theatre.

The center also has adult-oriented fun in its Entertainment District, located on the fourth floor between Bloomingdale's and Sears. The Entertainment District is home to America's Original Sports Bar, Knuckleheads Comedy Club, Gatlin Brothers Music City, Gators dance club, Fat Tuesday frozen drink bar, and Hooters restaurant. Mall of America also includes themed restaurants such as Planet Hollywood, California Cafe, Napa Valley Grille, and Rainforest Cafe.

"Five years ago, Mall of America got a lot attention because of its size," says Teresa McFarland, public relations director for Mall of America. "It has been able to keep the interest level up because it is a wonderful and unique place."

Turning negatives into positives Along with accolades, however, the center's high profile also has resulted in some not-so-favorable scrutiny. "When something bad or negative happens at the center, it seems the whole world knows," McFarland continues. "But since we are so large and we command so much attention, there also is a national interest in how we remedy the adverse situations."

For example, the mall was having a highly publicized problem with droves of roaming teenagers on weekends. While groups of youths are a Friday night fixture in many regional shopping centers, Mall of America's size and its added attractions magnified the situation. "We had up to 5,000 unchaperoned teenagers coming through 24 different entrances every Friday night," explains McFarland.

"Of course, we have posted rules and traditional security guards, but eventually things just started getting out of hand," she continues. "The children were becoming more disruptive to our tenants and other shoppers, and more disrespectful to the security guards. Something had to be done."

Two years ago, Mall of America embarked on what has turned into a three-part program to control young teenagers in the center. The first step was to set up a Youth Liaison Program, in which security guards, dressed in sweatsuit uniforms, patrol the mall and talk casually to the youths. These security officers also go to local schools and give talks to students about appropriate behavior when visiting the mall and other public places.

While the program made some headway initially, it was clear more control was needed. "The idea for our Mighty Mom Program was born when Virgil Heatwole (Mall of America's associate general manager) half-joked that what the mall needed was more moms," says McFarland. "But then we started thinking seriously about it and decided that was exactly what we needed."

To hatch the program, a team of the center's management met with local community organizations to rally support and volunteers for a program in which mothers of local high school-aged children patrol Mall of America with the security guards. The Mighty Mom program was put in place in April 1996 and has been well-received.

"We found that teenagers are more comfortable talking to a Mighty Mom than they are talking to a security guard," says McFarland. "If there were rumors of a fight that was going to take place or if one kid saw another doing something he or she shouldn't have been doing, we started hearing about it more, and were more able to react to the situation." Since its inception, the program has added 10 "Dedicated Dads."

According to McFarland, the Youth Liaison and Mighty Moms/Dedicated Dads programs gradually set the tone for last October's implementation of The Parental Escort Policy. The policy requires that, on weekends, all children 15-years-old and younger must be accompanied by an adult who is at least 21-years-old. Each adult can escort up to 10 children. To enforce the program, there are checkpoint stations throughout the mall and at every entrance.

"I consider the Parental Escort Policy to be the culminating effort in our fight against the youth problem," says McFarland. "We want to send the message that we are in control without making the center seem like a police state. Young people will always be welcome in the mall to shop, dine and visit all the attractions, but there are rules they must follow."

For the efforts in reclaiming the center, Mall of America has received inquiries from the news media and mall managers who want to know how it was done. "We have virtually eliminated a problem that had the potential to severely damage both the sales of our tenants and the family image of the mall," says McFarland. "I don't claim that Mall of America is the first to try these programs, but we are the first to do them on such a large scale."

Looking forward From security programs to the more than 300 annual promotional events, everything Mall of America does seems to be done on a large scale. The anniversary celebration will be no exception. Although the official five-year anniversary is not until August 11, the center is planning a summer full of fun and celebration.

The festivities begin this month with an outdoor concert series featuring such performers as The Moody Blues and Huey Lewis. The acts will perform at a temporary amphitheater that has been built next to the center.

A portion of the series'proceeds will be donated to help regional charities in their efforts to fight hunger and aid victims of this spring's floods. Other events, along with five-year statistics drawn from recent market research, will be announced as the anniversary date approaches.

McFarland says the mall owners may be able to announce preliminary plans regarding the expansion of Mall of America around the time of the anniversary as well. For several years, expansion plans have been up in the air as conflicts arose regarding the expansion land.

When the mall was built, a 33-acre parcel on the center's east side was tagged for multi-storied, phase two expansion. However, the pending construction of a north-south runway at the Minneapolis/ St. Paul International Airport puts Mall of America's expansion site in the airport's safety zone, severely restricting the height of all buildings -- existing or planned. When the owners of Mall of America purchased the land, no such airport plans were in the works, and there were no height restrictions.

"The Metropolitan Airports Commission [operator of the airport] will compensate the owners of Mall of America somehow," says Bob Hoffman, a partner with Bloomington-based Larkin, Hoffman, Daly & Lindgren, the law firm that represents the owners of the mall. "Whether that compensation will be in cash or -- ideally -- land remains to be seen."

The land Hoffman refers to is a 53-acre parcel adjacent to Mall of America on the north side. Formerly the site of the Met Center sports arena, the land is owned by the Metropolitan Sports Commission. Hoffman says he is working on a deal in which the Metropolitan Airports Commission will purchase the site from Metropolitan Sports Commission, and then swap it with the mall owners for the 33-acre parcel.

"Barring any unforeseen difficulties, we hope to be able to announce the land swap within the next three to six months," says Hoffman. He adds that other scenarios are possible but unlikely.

Adding pressure to the already tense expansion issue is a contract that Mall of America owners signed with the City of Bloomington in 1992. Essentially, it is an agreement that says construction of phase two must start within 10 years of Mall of America's grand opening or the owners lose their development rights.

"There are just five years left now, and that is not a vast amount of time to develop, lease and start construction on a new project," adds Hoffman. He notes that the project will "eventually double the size of largest shopping and entertainment center in the United States."

However, Hoffman is hopeful that the expansion of Mall of America will go smoothly once the land issue is ironed out. "I think the city will recognize that, with the airport situation, the owners have had their hands tied for more than two years. If it's necessary, I think they would ease up on that original contract," he says.

Currently, Simon DeBartolo Group is considering several proposals for phase two. Although no agreements have been reached, Wheeler says the new section will complement the existing mall with at least 4 million sq. ft. of hotel rooms, more retail and entertainment venues, and possibly office space and some high-tech, futuristic attractions.

"I once heard that very large ships and tankers need to start making a turn 5 miles before they reach a bend," says Wheeler. "I think the same thing can be said about Mall of America. The center is so large and has so many components, we can't change its course on dime. We have to have a good idea about what lies ahead and start reacting to those curves and bends before we see them."