The regional enclosed shopping mall has been dead for some time now, Les Morris says, laughing.

The regional enclosed shopping mall has been dead for some time now, Les Morris says, laughing.

Inside Morris’ office at Simon Property Group’s corporate headquarters in Indianapolis hangs a framed cover of a July 1998 issue of Time Magazine. “Kiss Your Mall Goodbye: Online shopping is cheaper, quicker and better,” it reads.

“I’ve been hearing it for years now,” says Morris, Simon’s director of public relations, about the demise of the enclosed shopping mall. “It’s nothing new to me.”    

Simon is the largest taxpayer in Independence, and the total market value of Independence Center, including its three anchor stores, is more than $78 million. According to local economic development experts, the nearly 37-year-old mall is one of only two thriving enclosed regional super malls in greater Kansas City. The other is Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kan.  

Dead malls have earned a cult following, and in 2000, New York residents Brian Florence and Peter Blackbird formed deadmalls.com, which lists malls across the country that have “died.”

It’s a list Independence Center won’t likely find itself on any time soon. Florence has a pretty good idea of what has kept malls like Independence Center successful.

“They probably have relevant anchors, renovate regularly, have ample access to the stores from the outside, are easily located off the convergence of many local expressways and are in demographic areas not prone to high crime,” Florence wrote earlier this week in a Facebook message.

The experts would agree.   

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Vernon Meckel knows malls.

He has been Independence Center’s general manager since Simon Property Group purchased the mall in December 1994. However, Meckel worked at Macy’s when the mall celebrated its grand opening in August 1974.

After time at specialty department and clothing stores, Meckel’s career in mall management started in 1984, and he ran enclosed shopping malls in Texas and Wisconsin before moving back to Independence. During the early 1990s, he also assisted in the opening of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

“Shopping malls in the late ’80s were just expanding everywhere,” Meckel says. “You couldn’t build enough malls fast enough. People were shopping, and money was spending real well.”

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, more than 16,000 shopping centers were built during the 1980s, and super regional centers like Independence Center also gained popularity. By the mid-1990s, the council says, a new retail format – the power center – had gained popularity with destination anchor stores. Internet retailing also took off.

The last enclosed U.S. shopping mall was built in 2006, according to ICSC, and the most recent enclosed mall in greater Kansas City – the Great Mall of the Great Plains – opened almost 14 years ago in Olathe, Kan.

“It’s a really mature product, so most areas of the country that need regional enclosed malls already have them,” Morris says. “It’s a product that has been built.”

To remain successful, companies have to take care of malls and upgrade them with the changing times, Meckel says, “or the mall is going to look tired and people won’t come back.”

More than a decade-and-a-half ago, Simon Property Group – the largest U.S. retail real estate investment trust – acquired Independence Center. Renovations, changes in aesthetics and accessibility and an improved food court were in its improvement plan.

And something had to be done about the number of vacancies in 1994. Meckel couldn’t quote an exact percentage of vacancies, but he said the mall had 27 temporary tenants (those with leases of less than one year) along with several vacant stores.

The changes started rolling in. First up: accessibility.

In 1998, escalators were added and shifted to the ends of the mall. A glass passenger elevator was added. The food court was renovated to be on one level instead of being split into two sections.  

“You can see people better, and you can see stores better,” Meckel says. “This is one of the few malls, I think, in America where you can stand on the upper level, and you can view about 80 percent of the stores. That’s what I think makes people feel comfortable. It’s not like they’re stuck down a corridor.”

It’s also about providing an experience for shoppers. The lower level includes a kid’s passenger train, a Mall Jump and a carousel. The children’s play area was renovated in late 2010 with new carpeting, and Meckel says more changes throughout the mall are on their way this year, possibly by October.

About a year ago, flat-screen TVs were added in the food court, and shoppers can use their cell phones to text which music video they would like to see next.

All told, Simon Property Group will spend a half billion dollars this year in renovating its enclosed malls, Morris says.

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Independence Center has a waiting list for tenants, Meckel says.

“We have a lot of clients that want to get in here,” he says, “so that helps when you do have a vacancy.”  

Sometimes, national companies contact the mall’s leasing representatives, expressing the desire to expand. Other times, a local merchant wants to try entrepreneurship in a mall space. Many of Independence Center’s kiosks feature these types of tenants, Meckel says.

“It provides an opportunity for them to see if their product or service is unique and good,” he says. “Not everything is going to be successful, and only certain things are going to be successful, maybe, during the holidays.”  

Shoppers won’t see security gates blocking closed or empty spaces at Independence Center. It’s a deliberate choice, Meckel says. The mall instead places graphics advertising that a store is “coming soon” or that Simon gift cards are available for purchase.

“We don’t want to have an empty storefront,” Meckel says. “We try to talk to our customers or to other businesses.”

Perception is important within the mall industry, especially regarding public safety. That remains the top priority at Independence Center, Meckel says.

An Independence Police Department substation opened at the mall in 1999. Two police officers are assigned to the mall, and Independence Center also contracts with a security company. Capt. John Cato, who oversees the Police Department’s special operations division, says at least one officer is always in the vicinity of Independence Center and that the officers also handle the surrounding commercial areas along 39th Street and Jackson Drive.

“We’re trying to be proactive and positive,” Cato says. “In essence, that little business area out there is a little microcosm of how the Independence Police Department likes to run its operation. We’re all involved in trying to keep that a piece of our city we want to take care of. The cooperation is ultimately a goal we’d like to have citywide.”

The closing of a mall is a lesson learned for those in the industry, Meckel says, including the once-popular Bannister Mall in south Kansas City, which closed four years ago this month. Again, Meckel says, it goes back to public safety as the top priority in an enclosed shopping mall.

“When people perceive it being unsafe, in reality, that’s their perception, and they react that way,” Meckel says.

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By 2012, the casual wear retailer Abercrombie & Fitch plans to close 110 of its U.S. stores. Earlier this year, the store at Independence Center closed after a 10-year run. In a nearly 9,500-square-foot space, the lower-level closing could have been a significant hit.

But the mall aims to replace its vacancies within three months.

“A lot of stores that close here at the Independence Center are not because this particular store failed,” Meckel says. It is often a retailer’s corporate decision to close. “It’s because they decided to go out of business.”

Enter The Foundry Big & Tall Supply Co., a newly formed store concept by J.C. Penney Co. The greater Kansas City and Dallas areas are the first two markets for the destination store, and two of the four stores in this area are at the two enclosed malls.

Meckel walks the floor of The Foundry, which opened earlier this month and took up about half of the space left vacant by Abercrombie & Fitch. He points out special features, including an oversized poker table as a T-shirt display and dressing rooms that resemble beer vats.

“They did it right on this one,” Meckel says.  

Teavana, a specialty tea and tea accessory retailer with more than 150 locations across the United States, also opened a new store on the lower level of Independence Center this week.

Among the mall’s 125 tenants are destination stores. Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence EDC, says Independence Center and Oak Park Mall are models of how successful indoors malls should be run.

“A lot of malls jump the shark when they start veering away from a strong tenant mix,” says Lesnak, adding that malls often struggle when a majority of their tenants are single-location novelty-type stores. “This mall has certainly avoided that. They have a strong focus, good management and they are always out there marketing this property.”   

Brien Starner, president of the Blue Springs Economic Development Corporation, called Independence Center “a regional asset.” Independence Center registers between 9 million and 10 million visitors each year, including its employees, and Meckel says the addition of the Independence Events Center south of the mall in late 2009 has certainly helped its foot traffic.  

While Blue Springs continues to gain new stores through Adams Dairy Landing, those strip centers provide a line of products and services for a quick shopping experience, Starner says. He says Independence Center provides a setting where shoppers could spend an entire day.  

“I think we’re fortunate in Eastern Jackson County to have a mall that is managed well and is run nicely,” Starner says. “I work in Blue Springs, but I’ve long shopped at Independence Center, and I think it’s really well kept up.”

Several mall attendees agreed that location is the draw to Independence Center.

Raytown resident Miguel Sewer has visited the mall at least once a month for 14 years and says he usually has a purchase in mind. In February, he went to the mall just for the cake decorating contest sponsored by Hy-Vee.

“It seems to have quite a bit of the necessities, plus a little extra,” Sewer says. “And, you meet interesting people.”  

Others, like northeast Kansas City residents Blanche and Richard Livingston, visit Independence Center for mall walking, and shopping comes secondary. The Livingstons come to the mall four times a week for 25-minute walks, alternating their exercise time at the Palmer Center.

Community partnerships also are important to Independence Center management. In the past six months, two Make-A-Wish Foundation children have had wishes granted at Independence Center. St. Mary’s Medical Center has a mall walking program that usually takes place from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday.

Several times a month, a sign language club sits inside the Independence Center food court, Meckel says.

“Things like that make me smile because we’re providing a safe and friendly environment for everyone to come together,” he says.  

So, what is the mall-management veteran’s response to the comment “indoor malls are dying”? Meckel laughs. With a several inspirational quotation posters in his office, it’s clear that Independence Center won’t “die” on his watch.

“I think I’ve read it more than I’ve actually heard it,” Meckel says. “Indoor malls, I think, are going to be around for a long time. The malls are going to survive because it’s a place where people feel comfortable.”