Few people would notice the demolition of a 1960s-era motel but add “former Thunderbird Motel” to the equation and ears of the nostalgic perk up.
The kitschy Thunderbird Motel, an American Indian-themed establishment built in 1962, anchored one corner of the sports complex in Bloomington that was once home to the Vikings, Twins and North Stars. Today, it’s the site of the Mall of America, and the old Thunderbird, which has been a Ramada-branded hotel for 11 years, will be torn down later this year for a future expansion of the mall’s property.
The Bloomington City Council last week approved the Bloomington Port Authority’s purchase of the building, located at 2300 East American Blvd., for $18.5 million from a hotel group led by Len Podheiser of Winnipeg.
The Port Authority will pay an estimated $1 million to demolish the building before selling it to an affiliate of Triple Five Group of Cos., the Canada-based owner of the Mall of America, for a future development.
The motel’s original look, created when cultural sensitivity was lower, is long gone. The Thunderbird was known for a totem pole that was visible from Interstate 494, statues and headdresses in the lobby, taxidermied animals, a coffee shop called Bow and Arrow and a cocktail lounge called Pow-Wow.
It was something of a landmark for the suburb that grew in the 1960s and 1970s from small town to third-largest city in the metro area. The 494 strip, as it was known, has lost several other distinctive buildings, including the 1,200-seat Southtown Theatre and Naegele advertising company’s colonial-style headquarters.
The Thunderbird was Bloomington’s first motel, according to the Bloomington Historical Society website, though most rooms were accessed from the inside rather than the outside. For a time, it was the only place near Metropolitan Stadium with a liquor license. The motel eventually was renamed the Thunderbird Hotel and kept that name until 2005.
Over the years, it was the site of countless high school proms, meetings of the U’s Goal Line Club and conventions for groups from the Tall Club of the Twin Cities to Safari International to the Midwest Boaters Association. It was also the go-to spot for the Northwest Airlines pilots union, which plotted showdowns with management and voted on contracts there.
The current building’s owner had begun discussing a possible sale with other developers when the Port Authority stepped in. It’s a strategic move by the city of Bloomington to protect its vision for a district around the mall that it is now promoting as the South Loop.
The mall last fall submitted plans for a 1 million-square-foot addition on what is now a surface lot between its main building and the Ramada. In a planning document, the mall indicates that the Ramada’s land and a parcel next to it might be used for a new hotel.
“The goal is to build a development consistent with the South Loop development plan and also consistent with the Mall of America’s plans,” said Schane Rudlang, Port Authority administrator. “We want a development that is as dense as possible on that site … to transform the South Loop area from suburban to urban.”
The Mall of America’s owner has a five-year option on the property, according to the purchase agreement, but the Port Authority could sell it to the mall much sooner. The MOA’s Triple Five Group will pay the Port Authority what it paid for the property plus demolition costs. “If after five years they haven’t developed it, the Port Authority is going to develop it,” Rudlang said.
Through this Port Authority acquisition, about two of the site’s 12 acres will be given to the city of Bloomington for a planned entrance and exit to I-494 before the property is sold to Triple Five, according to the agreement documents.
“We’ve been studying, off and on for 10 years, if that can be connected,” Rudlang said, referring to a cul-de-sac on the east edge of the Ramada. “It wouldn’t be a whole new intersection, just a slip ramp on and off.”
The sale is expected to close by May 2. The hotel is required to send a 30-day notice to guests and users who have booked space, and the Port Authority plans to demolish the structure by summer or fall.