Canadian mall gives new meaning to the simple shopping trip

There's nothing new about retailers trying to make shopping entertaining. But the West Edmonton Mall adds a new dimension to that goal. Not only is this mall billed as the world's largest shopping center with more than 800 retail stores and some 110 food outlets, it also features:

A $6 ride in one of four submarines that run 15 feet under water through a 400-foot-long artificial lake in the center of the mall.

A ``Fantasyland'' with 28 rides, including a covered, 13-story high, triple-loop roller coaster. (The coaster is temporarily out of commission during an investigation into a recent fatal accident.)

Aquariums, a shark tank, a dolphin show, bird aviaries, a monkey habitat, a petting zoo.

A water park for swimming, waterslides, and surfing indoors -- even when it is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The artificially-generated waves break on the ``beach'' at a maximum height of six feet.

A National Hockey League-sized ice rink where the Edmonton Oilers will practice.

Bruce Corban, a partner in the Toronto firm of Moorhead Fleming Corban McCarthy that did the landscaping for this massive mall, maintains that this combination of leisure park and retailing will become ``the trend of the future.''

He adds: ``Major developers and investors have come to realize that this is an area not being tapped. There is a global interest.''

His firm is working on four smaller retail-entertainment combinations in a suburb of Paris, in Newcastle, England, and in Cincinnati and Denver in the United States. There's also considerable interest from some Australian developers, he says.

``People are coming in and out of here like mad,'' says another partner, Steven Moorhead.

One of the complaints of some retailers in the Edmonton mall is that those enjoying the various entertainment features are left with too little time, inclination, or money to shop.

But Mr. Moorhead says that the newer theme parks in other malls are ``considerably different.'' They are smaller, so they do not overwhelm the shopping center. They have fewer rides. The basic idea, says Moorhead, is to create ``a festive market'' where shoppers will be content to spend more time and money.

At Woodbine Center in Toronto, the landscape architecture firm built an amusement park filling the space that would normally belong to a department store ``anchoring'' one end of the mall. That $8 million Fantasy Fair occupies 45,000 square feet, compared to the 120,000 of Fantasyland here.

The rides are intended for those under 10 because the developers did not want to attract teen-agers from a nearby ``tough'' neighborhood.

Moorhead Fleming Corban McCarthy, through a subsidiary, is offering entertainment ``packages'' that might have as a theme a spaceship, a jungle cruise, a haunted house, or a children's village.

They hope to sell the packages to existing malls as well as new shopping centers.

The Edmonton mall is so huge that some shoppers rent small, battery-powered vehicles to get about. The promoters of the mall have been trying, with some modest success, to make it a tourist attraction.

But, as one civil servant here said, ``You have to be pretty bored with your life to vacation in a mall.''

Nonetheless, some shoppers have flown here on charter flights from Vancouver and elsewhere to go to the mall to spend money in its four major department stores or in the stores along its simulated Paris street or Bourbon Street scene, etc., etc., etc.

The mall has cost in total nearly $1 billion Canadian (US$720 million), a huge investment for a prairie city with a population of only 560,000.

But the mall gives Edmontonians a covered, warm place to visit on cold winter days or evenings when television begins to pall.

Some retailers complain that the mall is so huge that they get insufficient traffic and visitors. A number have closed their doors and been replaced. Certainly smaller shopping centers in the West Edmonton area have been devastated, and downtown Edmonton stores have not escaped unscathed.

Critics also question the taste of some of the decoration of the mall, with its abundance of marble, mirrors, chrome, and brass. But teen-agers love the place, hanging out by the thousands in video game arcades, the restaurants, or elsewhere.

The owners of the family-owned conglomerate that built the mall, the Triple Five Corporation Ltd., have become popular if somewhat reclusive figures in Edmonton.

Of Iranian origin, the Ghermezian family includes four brothers, Nader, Bahman, Raphael, and Eskandar, and their father, Jacob.

Ted Byfield, owner of the influential weekly Alberta Report, recalls how camera-shy Raphael Ghermezian took a swipe at him when he tried to take his photo. That was in 1974 when a judicial inquiry studied allegations that one of the Ghermezians attempted to bribe a city alderman over a zoning matter. He was cleared of the charge.

Despite that episode, Mr. Byfield likes the Ghermezians with their enterprise, big-thinking, and enthusiasm.

He says that one of the brothers could be elected mayor of Edmonton if he chose to run.

``The brothers themselves have become exotic points of interest,'' notes one Canadian magazine.

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