Risky and unproven, the colossal super mall was once denigrated as a science experiment gone awry. But, with the success of Alberta's West Edmonton Mall and Minnesota's Mall of America — the first and second largest retail venues of their kind in North America — the science experiment is now being replicated elsewhere.
Forty miles north of Montreal in a sleepy farm community called Mirabel, Rubin Stahl, the former president of the West Edmonton Mall along with Connecticut-based Gordon Group Holdings, is planning what Stahl says is probably the largest new retail project in North America.
Lac Mirabel, the $350 million retail and entertainment complex will feature 1.8 million sq. ft. of mixed-use retail space spanning 320 acres, including Canada's largest indoor aquarium at 140,000 sq. ft. and a 305,000 sq. ft. man-made lake. By comparison, the West Edmonton Mall sits on 121 acres and is home to, among other things, the world's largest indoor lake.
Lac Mirabel will feature a 70,000 sq. ft. “Kidtropolis” education facility, a 6,000-seat performance center and a 3,000-person convention center. The enormous complex, slated to open in 2007, is already half leased and expected to generate $256 million in net sales annually while providing 3,200 jobs. “The location is good and the timing is good for a project like this,” says Mark Sinnett, a CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate agent in Montreal. “Our economy grew by 3.5% last year and the retail industry has shown steady growth over the last five years.”
Sinnett says that because Lac Mirabel is located halfway between Montreal and the very popular Laurentian resort area, the massive project could be successful due to the 4.5 million people that live in greater Montreal. “West Edmonton Mall was a risk because the entire Alberta province only had about 1 million people,” says Sinnett. “Lac Mirabel will be in Quebec, which is home to over 7 million.”
Even with demographics on its side, Lac Mirabel is a concern for some because of the failed history of other massive developments. By land area, the largest airport in the world is the Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, recently closed due to lack of business. “People didn't want to drive 40 miles to get to the Mirabel airport, so they may not want to drive 40 miles to get to Lac Mirabel either,” says Robert Longtin, president of Montreal-based brokerage RL Commercial. People in the community have mixed feelings about the project, Longtin says, because there is nothing but farms in Mirabel, and Montreal already offers many retail options.
Located between Mirabel and Montreal, the Cherokee Group is developing 230 acres from a closed General Motors manufacturing plant, including 1.3 million sq. ft. of retail, says CBRE's Sinnett. While the Montreal suburbs are growing and will support new power retail centers, the Quebec culture in general has not necessarily warmed to large-scale entertainment venues. “Six Flags took over an aging theme park in Montreal about three years ago and they haven't turned a profit yet,” says Sinnett.
Culturally, the people of Quebec prefer simpler, nature-oriented getaways and it's hard to say how a project like Lac Mirabel will grow over time. “While the project fills a void in the region,” adds Sinnett, “families have dramatically shrunk and Quebec has one of the lowest birth rates in North America.”