Mall banks on Nick's knack

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2007 - 1:33 PM

As the Mall of America looks to double its size, itsigned a 10-year licensing deal with kids' cable TV channelNickelodeon for the mall's amusement park.

The cartoon character SpongeBob will replace Snoopy as the mascot for the amusement park at the Mall of America.

Photo: Nickelodeon, Nickelodeon

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Who would have thought that the Mall of America's future would one day rest on the shoulders of a big yellow sponge?

Almost 15 years after Ray Charles sang "America the Beautiful" at its opening, the mall has turned to another entertainment icon to renew its appeal for shoppers and tourists.

On Wednesday, the mall's owners announced that SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron and other Nickelodeon characters will take the places formerly held by Peanuts and the Gang at Camp Snoopy.

The 10-year licensing agreement with Nickelodeon, the children's cable TV network owned by media giant Viacom, could help dispel lingering doubts among some retail observers about whether the mall had lost its way, and could give it some extra momentum as it prepares to double in size.

"This is the biggest thing that has happened to us since opening 15 years ago," said Maureen Bausch, the mall's vice president of business development.

For the past year, the mall has been trying to convince the retail world that it can pull off a 5.6-million-square-foot expansion that would cost $1.9 billion and need more than $200 million in public subsidies.

At the same time they were asking state legislators to support the expansion, the mall's majority owners -- Canada's Ghermezian family -- seemed to be presiding over some disarray at the Bloomington site.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang left a year ago after the mall couldn't reach an agreement with Cedar Fair, the Sandusky, Ohio, company that also owns Valley Fair and has exclusive rights to the Peanuts characters. Snoopy's departure left the mall's amusement park as little more than a collection of rides under the uninspiring name "The Park at MOA." Meanwhile, the mall's fourth-floor entertainment area, once home to a Planet Hollywood, went virtually dark after five restaurants and nightclubs closed.

Mall officials insist that the departure of the Peanuts gang, part of the mall since its opening in 1992, did not hurt sales. Sales per square foot, a key barometer for malls, was greater in 2006 than in any year in the mall's history, Bausch said. The mall's vacancy rate is about 5 percent, lower than almost every other mall in the area.

Fade to black

Though the fourth floor is still largely dark -- black tarps cover many of the windows -- the mall expects to fill those restaurants within the next year, Bausch said.

Even so, the absence of a theme for the seven-acre amusement park, which mall officials once dubbed their "secret weapon," created the perception that it was struggling.

"Fewer people come to the Mall of America just because it's the Mall of America and it's big," said Mike Mady, owner of Street Corner News, a convenience store in the mall. "Some of the novelty has worn off, so you've got to give people a reason to come here. And after Snoopy left, a lot of people didn't have a reason."

A confidence-builder

The deal with Nickelodeon should help restore confidence in the mall's viability. More than 20 media companies, including Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, expressed interest in signing licensing agreements to operate the amusement park, Bausch said.

"So much of the mall's success was built on this sense of novelty and perpetual newness," said William Kowinski, author of "The Malling of America."This just proves that they are continuing to renew the vitality of the place," he said.

The Nickelodeon characters could prove especially valuable, as their appeal extends beyond children to teenagers and even college students (some colleges boast SpongeBob clubs) -- a broad and highly coveted group of potential shoppers.

Last year, Nickelodeon attracted an average of 2.13 million viewers each day, more than any other cable TV network for all-day viewing. In 2004, SpongeBob, one of its most popular cartoon characters, grossed $1.5 billion from toys, TV commercials and theme parks, according to Forbes.com.

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