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Shopping Minnesota

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This isn't a tale of two cities. Not exactly. It's not even a tale of Twin Cities, which will probably miff St. Paul -- but, St. Paul, we'll make it up to you someday.

This is about Minneapolis and the Mall of America.

Minneapolis has 30 live theater venues, including two that have won Tonys: the Guthrie Theater and the Children's Theatre Company.

The mall has 32 shoe stores -- not counting the four major department stores that also sell men's and women's apparel.

Minneapolis has the expanded Walker Art Center, the Weisman Art Museum (building by Frank Gehry), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, rehabbed movie palaces, jazz clubs, rock clubs and, downtown alone, 70 "tablecloth" restaurants, including fancy chains and dazzling independents. And it has the Mississippi River.

The mall has (a partial list) McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, KFC, Taco Bell, Panda Express, Sbarro, Subway, A&W;, Cousins Subs, Orange Julius, Dairy Queen, Cinnabon, Krispy Kreme, Long John Silver's, three Caribou Coffees and a Starbucks.

No wonder 40 million people, 40 percent of them from out of town, come to the Mall of America every year.

No wonder more people live in a revitalized downtown Minneapolis today than, we're told, live in downtown Denver, Dallas, Houston and Indianapolis combined.

No wonder some people who adore one abhor the other.

"I've never been there," says Donna Dralle, a graphic artist who has lived in the city for 20 years, of the Mall of America, "and I'm very proud of that.

"It's just a big mall. It's the same stores as any other mall, pretty much."

Not to Ashli Hessel.

"This is the biggest one in the country!" says Ashli, who is 15, from North Barrington, Ill., and who is here with her mom for the weekend to do nothing but shop. "And there's no sales tax on clothes here!"

Or on shoes!

Can't the mall, in south suburban Bloomington, and the larger Twin City just get along? Actually, they sort of do.

These days, there's even a cheap train connecting the Land of the Multiple Foot Locker to the Cultural Capital of This Part of the Upper Midwest. Which, these days, makes visiting both on one trip -- yes, both -- one of the more pleasurable ways to spend a weekend in the Midwest.

It's been an interesting journey to detente on the prairie. Let's jet back to August 1992, when the mall opened its many, many, many doors for business.

"It scared the heck out of everybody here," says Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

But "what it has done," says mall spokesman Doug Killian, "is brought more people into the region -- to shop here and do other things here. It's really expanded the market for all of us, but it was very difficult to foresee that."

Here's a hint of what Killian's talking about. "We asked the cab driver which are the most famous things to see here," said Marc Stuifzand, visiting on business from Utrecht, Netherlands, as he meandered wide-eyed through the mall's Camp Snoopy amusements, "and this popped up first as the main thing people must see. It's kind of nice. It's big."

But Stuifzand, along with about 6,000 other conventioneers in Minnesota this day courtesy of Microsoft, was staying and dining and, possibly, enjoying libations and maybe a show, in downtown Minneapolis. Between corporate pep talks, he could shop Marshall Field's and Neiman Marcus and dozens of other stores in downtown Minneapolis, or gaze at an absurd sculpture of an oversize spoon and cherry.

Or head back to the mall, 35 minutes and $1.50 away via the spiffy new Hiawatha Light Rail, and enjoy a Pronto Pup, which likely is hard to find in Utrecht.

520 stores, all indoors

OK, here's what we're dealing with:

The Mall of America is 520 stores, give or take a couple, plus restaurants (including, OK, some with tablecloths), on four levels. It is the largest indoor mall in America.

The people who run the place love stats like these: Seven Yankee Stadiums could fit inside the thing, as could 32 Boeing 747s, though presumably not with the ballparks.

The mall, from a loon's-eye-view, is in four quadrants, each anchored by department stores: Nordstrom, Sears, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, one in each corner. In the middle of all this -- again, this is all indoors -- is Camp Snoopy, an amusement park with food and other things to buy, including, of course, stuffed Snoopys.

The rides, 21 in all, don't match Six Flags / Cedar Point in scream factor, but a couple will get your attention, notably an evil little swiveling coaster called the Timberland Twister. Most of the rest rotate or glide gently enough to keep the funnel cakes safely inside the little ones. Yes, there is a charge for the rides.

Branching out from that center core are stacks of stores. They're all here, most of them, from Abercrombie to Zumiez. If you live near a metropolitan area big enough to have a Gap, most of the retailers can be found in a mall near you. That seems to matter to no one.

There's more: In the basement is an aquarium, Underwater Adventures, where, among other fun things, your child can stick his or her hand into shallow water and fondle a live shark. Yes, there is a charge for the aquarium.

There's more:

From time to time, free shows happen, starring the likes of Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, but mostly the likes of people with less-familiar navels. The day of the Microsoft invasion, hundreds of squealing teenage consumers needed restraining by security as an R&B; boy band called B5 danced and sang.

Does all this sound overly commercial? Of course, it's commercial. It's a mall.

"This is the purpose why everybody's here," says Stuif-zand, the visiting Dutchman, who thoroughly gets it, "and everybody here is having a great time."

What makes the place tolerable even for cynics and those who resist paying retail is, there's no law that says you have to join the buying frenzy to enjoy the Mall of America.

Doug and Janet Simmons, of Sioux Falls, S.D., routinely make the four-hour drive across the wheat fields with their camper just to hang out here.

"It's something to do when it gets too hot outside," says Doug.

"There's been times," adds Janet, "we've come in the wintertime, too, just to get away from Sioux Falls."

There you have it.

Then there's Minneapolis.

A revived city

Ten years ago, this was a city whose central core was in trouble. Hennepin Street, once the city's happening entertainment district, had become an avenue of closed theaters and open vice. Retail was feeling the pressure from not only the Mall of America but continuing competition from the suburban malls that had preceded it.

When Southdale Center, in 1959, became North America's first indoor shopping mall, 30,000 people lived in central Minneapolis. By the mid-1990s, that had shrunk to about 17,000.

The story of the Minneapolis revival in the face of a giant mall capable of turning downtown into a district of empty storefronts is a story of visionaries and commitment.

The details are mainly of interest to mayors and urbanologists, but here's a quick rundown: Between 1995 and 2001, nine office towers rose in downtown Minneapolis. They filled with workers. Workers shop. Some of them would rather live near work than battle the interstates. Shops opened to serve them. Restaurants, many along open-air Nicollet Mall, opened to serve the shoppers, and to serve the tourists attracted by the new Target Center (home to Timberwolves' games and concerts), burgeoning theater (Disney's The Lion King made its premiere here in 1997) and proximity to -- irony of ironies -- the Mall of America.

"It turns out," says the Downtown Council's Grabarski, "the world thinks the Mall of America is in downtown Minneapolis. We didn't tell them that. They just think that."

Add to this a trend being seen in many cities nationally: Aging, moneyed baby boomers are joining young professionals in gravitating back to urban life.

Today, once again, the population of central Minneapolis is approaching 30,000. New construction and loft conversions, especially in the Warehouse and Riverfront districts, are expected to bring that to 40,000 within a couple of years.

"Our official goal," Grabarski says, "is 50,000."

So what does all this mean to visitors?

Buoyed by the return of resident downtowners, you'll eat well, for one thing. You'll also have available all the things essential to life in the best cities: music, theater, convivial places to enjoy a beverage, even a movie (a new downtown multiplex now stands where drunks once staggered).

And with street life no longer dominated by the derelict and desperate, you'll be able to walk to and from all those things safely after dark -- just like they do in Utrecht.

Distinctly Minneapolis

A few things, unique (or nearly unique) to Minneapolis and not to be missed:

The just-expanded Walker Art Center. It's a museum of contemporary art that's guaranteed to make you smile -- as it did when a young lady and I sat alone in a darkened room, earnestly analyzing the meaning of a static green image being projected on a screen.

Question, afterward, to a nearby guard: "What are people's reactions to that?"

Answer: "Actually, it's broken."

The Mill City Museum. Minneapolis, for decades, was the world's largest miller of flour. On the riverfront, housed in the ruins of a mill that once ground wheat into Gold Medal flour (and burned in 1991), this museum tells the story of an industry that defined a city.

The exhibits are OK, but the building (only partially restored) is remarkable, and do not miss the guided tour that rides an industrial elevator into the tower and ends with a marvelous view of the Mississippi and, across the river, the mill that once made Pillsbury's Best.

Bonus: A new Guthrie Theater is nearing completion next door, symbol of the area's revitalization. (That Pillsbury mill is becoming landmark condos.) "We used to turn our backs on the river," says museum interpreter Carolyn Ruff. Not anymore.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Much maligned -- and for good reasons -- it likely will be replaced as home of the Twins baseball team (the football team, the Vikings, are in separate talks) in a couple of years by an open-air downtown ballpark near the Target Center.

Minnesota Sculpture Garden. Near the Walker. Chicago has sculpture gardens. New York has them. No one has anything quite like this.

The people.

"When I moved here," said Donna Dralle, the artist, "it really was a sea of blond hair and blue eyes. There certainly were ethnic neighborhoods, but it's become a lot more ethnic than it used to be.

"But generally, it's always seemed that people are more receptive here. This is a pretty tolerant town."

So that "Minnesota nice" thing has survived. Even among rivals.

"We have the urban experience," says Grabarski. "They have the ultimate mall experience. People have a choice.

"And we think the choice is working for us both."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

When you go

Getting there: A number of airlines offer nonstop and connecting flights from BWI to Minneapolis.

Staying there: Plenty of fine hotels are in downtown Minneapolis, including many of the familiar brands (Radisson, Marriott, Le Meridien, Hyatt, Doubletree, others), at prices commonly in the $200-$250 range -- but that's during the week. Unless there's a convention in town, rates plummet as much as 50 percent on weekends. More than 30 hotels are in and around Bloomington (and the airport) within 10 minutes of the Mall of America, and most provide shuttles.

Dining there: Minneapolis' culinary imagination long ago expanded beyond red meat, walleye and wild rice soup, though you should try the wild rice soup when you find it.

Nicollet Mall, an almost closed-off downtown street, is a virtual wine-and-food fair, with sidewalk seating at such contrasting places as Zelo (upscale Italian, snazzy) and Brit's Pub (bangers on the mash, rugby on the telly).

Also downtown, several hotel restaurants (Manny's and Oceanaire in the Hyatt, Cosmos in Le Meridien) draw raves; for a semi-Minnesota breakfast treat, try the walleye hash with poached eggs and hollandaise ($9.95) at FirePlay, in the Radisson Plaza.

Elsewhere, Cafe Lurcat, convenient to the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie, is pricey but interesting (excellent sea bass marinated in miso, by itself, $24; add $7 for green beans).

To dine nicely alongside Minnesotans you'll wish were neighbors, try Lucia's, a comfortably priced, ethnically neutral 20-year-old jewel in Uptown, one of the city's most livable areas.

Information:

On Minneapolis: Contact the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association: 888-676-6757; www.minneapolis.org.

Mall of America: 800-490-4200; www.mallofamerica .com.

-- Alan Solomon

Hitting the mall: Make a plan

At the Mall of America, not far from a stomach-churning amusement in Camp Snoopy called the Treetop Tumbler, Shawna Bentler, a biology major at the University of Minnesota, sells and applies temporary tattoos.

She also watches the people. Sometimes, the same people over and over.

"Oh, yeah," she says. "You see them walking through here day after day."

Often with a glazed look that has nothing to do with the Treetop Tumbler.

While comparing the Mall of America to London's British Museum would seem absurd, they do have this in common: Exploring either without a plan isn't the most efficient way to do it.

It would take 86-plus hours to spend 10 minutes in each of the 520 stores in the Mall of America, which, considering the time it takes some people to buy one pair of shoes, means this won't happen in real life.

How, then, to deal with this challenge on a rational time-table?

Mall spokesman Doug Killian offers a plan.

"I would get a map and a directory right away," he says. Both are free and easy to find. "Walk the perimeter of the first floor and get a sense of it."

The perimeter would be about a half-mile walk. (The mall, by the way, is accessible to wheelchairs.) The walk, Killian says, would take about 15 or 20 minutes.

"Take your time," he says. "That would give you a good sense of the department stores, and where the stores appear and what's here."

You also get good views of Camp Snoopy. It really is something to see.

"Then," he says, "you're thinking, 'OK, I've got an idea of what's here, and now I want to get a pair of shoes.' You look up 'shoes' in the directory and see the stores, and then ..."

The list of 32 shoe stores, alphabetically, begins with Aerosoles (South Avenue, first floor) and ends with Vans (North Garden, third floor).

Fortunately, you're not entirely on your own. Says Killian, "We have a fair number of uniformed security officers available to answer your questions."

Unfortunately, ask one of them where you can find something in a mule, size 7, and you might get a glazed look that has nothing to do with the Treetop Tumbler.

-- Alan Solomon

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