Edmonton mega-mall hits big 3-0 with little fanfare

West Edmonton Mall turned 30 years old Thursday, but there were no balloons, cake or banners to mark the occasion. Instead, its family owners want to emphasize the mall's efforts to refresh its image.

West Edmonton Mall turned 30 years old Thursday, but there were no balloons, cake or banners to mark the occasion. Instead, its family owners want to emphasize the mall's efforts to refresh its image.

"Better to focus on every step forward as opposed to what we've accomplished in the past." mall president Don Ghermezian told CBC News Wednesday.

Don, 35, is the son of Eskander Ghermezian, one of four brothers who built the mall on the outskirts of Edmonton. Don and his brother David now handle the shopping centre's daily operations.

"When you take a step back and look at all the things that you're expected to do and manage and work on and control, it can be an overwhelming experience," Don said from his office, overlooking the mall's faux European streetscape.

Don Ghermezian and his brother David now handle the day-to-day operations of the family-owned mall. CBC

West Edmonton Mall no longer holds the title of world's biggest shopping centre, but business experts said the fact that stores turn immense profits is a testament to the Ghermezians' ability to reinvent.

"I don't see in the foreseeable future that the mall is at risk," University of Alberta retail expert Paul McElhone told CBC News.

Don Ghermezian claims his stores make as much as $1,000 a year per square foot versus the Canadian average of $580.

McElhone said another key to the mall's success has been its blend of shopping and entertainment, which includes a 12.3-million litre wave pool, an indoor lake, skating rink and amusement park.

"Anybody could build a mall, anybody can build a structure. But it's like Disney. There aren't that many people that can infuse the magic into the space."

Luring big retailers new focus

Don Ghermezian said there are no immediate plans to build new attractions. But earlier this spring, the mall launched a multi-million-dollar facelift on the exterior and interior of the 48-block complex, including fountains and seating.

"They're going into a phase now I would think of rebuilding almost constantly now," said former Edmonton city councillor and executive director of the Downtown Business Association, Jim Taylor.

Ghermezian said another focus is to lure major retailers. Last year, Victoria's Secret opened its first Canadian store at the mall, while J. Crew and Quebec fashion giant Simon's are expected to open next year.

"Truth is, I don't really have to sell," Ghermezian said. "They come knocking."

Paul McElhone said West Edmonton Mall's continued success is remarkable while other mega-mall projects suffer huge vacancies, such as the world's biggest mall in Dongguan, China, which is reportedly 99 per cent empty.

Dark spots don't deter mega-mall

There have been darker sides to West Edmonton Mall's three decades as North America's biggest shopping centre.

In 1986, three people died in a rollercoaster crash at the mall. In the 1990s, the Ghermezian family weathered a $300-million loan scandal and the protests of animal rights activists following the death of dolphins.

While in the 2000s, security was a top concern after 13-year-old Nina Courtepatte was lured from the mall and slain at a golf course.

"When you put 30 million people through a centre in a one-year period, there's crime. It happens everywhere," said Don Ghermezian, pointing out that the mall has a state-of-the-art security system with around 200 cameras.

"There isn't one area of the shopping centre that you would walk through where you're not being videotaped," said Ghermezian. "With the exception of the bathrooms."

Ghermezian said the family's business interests will continue to expand beyond Edmonton, including to its other mall projects: the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, and the American Dream mall in New Jersey.

He said he's already getting help from an unexpected source.

"My son already instead of this year going to summer camp, he's 11 years old and spent every day this summer at work with me," he said.

"I hope that he'll continue on and maybe go from generation to generation. Who knows?"