Originally created 08/09/99

Mall of Georgia banks on tourist appeal



BUFORD, Ga. -- Walk into the Mall of Georgia's main entrance, designed to look like Atlanta's famous Fox Theatre, make a right and you'll think that you've traveled to Savannah's Forsyth Square.

The 1.7 million-square-foot enclosed mall, which opens this weekend, takes shoppers on a scaled-down tour of Georgia, from the coast and plains to the piedmont and mountains.

"I think malls need to be more than just a shopping experience," said Ben Carter, whose Atlanta-based Ben Carter Properties came up with the mall concept.

"(Malls) become centers of the community," he said. "They need to be a place that people just want to go."

Although the largest mall in the state and the 14th-largest in the country looks imposing from the outside, its crescent-shaped interior prevents shoppers from seeing how far they have to walk to reach the stores at the ends of the mall.

As shoppers round each bend and enter a new region of Georgia, the scenery changes appropriately. The mountain corridor, where Nordstrom will open its second Atlanta store in March, is designed to look like a lodge, with a pitched wooden roof, quilt-like carpets and twig furniture.

The mall's food court recalls Union Station, the main post-Civil War train depot for Atlanta. After all, says Scott Higley, the mall's marketing director, Atlanta exists because of trains. At one time, Union Station served as a city hub.

The mall has been touted as a new concept for malls throughout the country because of its outdoor village, connected to the mall through the food court.

The village stores have vintage facades and differing architectural styles to give the feel of an intimate, downtown street that developed over many years. Architects at Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates scoured history books and visited at least 15 Georgia towns, including Athens, Gainesville and Statesboro, to find architectural inspirations for the village. The village stores, however, are not scheduled to open until October.

Stores, such as The Limited, The Gap, Ann Taylor, Abercrombie & Fitch and Pottery Barn, that will open next weekend can be found just six exits south on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett Place and in the other malls that dot the Atlanta area.

Three of the mall's four anchor stores -- Dillards, Lord & Taylor and J.C. Penney -- opened last weekend.

Keith Richards, strategic marketing manager for Kurt Salmon Associates, an Atlanta-based retail consulting firm, said there's plenty of room for another mall targeting upscale shoppers.

"I don't think there's any real risk of putting them out of business," he said. "In the short term people will go there in order to see it, but if it's not convenient to where they live, work or shop, our previous shopping habits will prevail."

The mall's owner, Simon Properties, also owns many of its biggest competitors -- Gwinnett Place, Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza, Town Center at Cobb and Northlake Mall.

Mr. Higley said he doesn't expect to recruit many shoppers from the metro Atlanta area. Instead, he plans to target shoppers in north Gwinnett County, as well as Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. The mall even has its own tourism director.

Mr. Richards said the largest mall in the country, the Mall of America in Minneapolis, has become a tourist destination largely because of its size and entertainment venues.

"Whether this mall can achieve that is still a question mark," Mr. Richards said. "Does it have that same kind of appeal? Is size attractive, or does it require some other kind of entertainment to draw a crowd."

The Mall of Georgia features the state's first 3-D Imax theater, 20 regular theater screens, each with stadium seating, a band shell in the village for live performances, and an 80-acre nature park.

"Shopping is only one aspect of the whole experience," Mr. Higley said.