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    Wide-eyed shoppers take in new mall

    A pep rally greets customers at Nordstrom. An array of new stores tempts International Plaza shoppers.

    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Limited Too employees Amy Fobell, Carol Armstrong and Michele Plotkowski pause for a moment of silence at noon Friday to honor the victims of this week's terrorist attacks. Employees and shoppers gathered at
    International Plaza's grand court for prayer and reflection.

    By MARK ALBRIGHT

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 15, 2001


    TAMPA -- Nearly 300 Nordstrom clerks clapped, cheered and swayed to the disco beat of YMCA as the doors rolled open to the chain's new store in International Plaza.

    photo
    [Times photo: Fraser Hale]
    Tracy Gaschler, left, pushes her daughter, Rebecca, as she shops with her husband, Ron Gaschler, and her mother, Barbara Bilger, on Friday at International Plaza in Tampa.
    A dozen outnumbered and startled shoppers found themselves wandering into the middle of Nordstrom's customary pep rally for the opening of a new store.

    "Scared me to death," said Annette Namath, who braved hurricane advisories to be among the first shoppers on the new mall's opening day. "I thought maybe 10 to 15 people would be at the door to welcome us, not 300."

    "I feel like royalty," said Jane Grundy, a British vacationer who owns a condo in Carrollwood, as she emerged from the welcoming gantlet.

    It was a strange and star-crossed grand opening Friday for the new $200-million mall near Tampa International Airport. About 1,000 people showed up for the 10 a.m. opening, so the clerks outnumbered the customers for a while. But the 6,900-space parking lots were more than half full by noon. And with football games, regular TV programming and most live concerts canceled this weekend, mall officials are braced for massive crowds today and Sunday.

    "We've had blizzards and tornadoes and never missed a grand opening in this company's 51-year history," said Robert Taubman, president and chief executive officer of Taubman Centers Inc., the mall's operator. "But we've never had this combination of events to deal with before."

    The nation was still in mourning from Tuesday's terrorist attacks. About 15 of the mall's 140 stores couldn't open because the shutdown of the nation's air transport system delayed arrival of merchandise and many fixtures. Then, the media spent the morning warning people to stay home as Tropical Storm Gabrielle blew through.

    Out of respect for the nation's somber mood, the normal hoopla was muted. Instead of jugglers and fire eaters, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco offered a short opening ceremony speech about how Americans overcome adversity, then led a chorus of God Bless America. Officials even unplugged the mall Muzak for fear a tune someone might deem offensive would be broadcast down the white marble and wood-paneled corridors.

    Once the worst of the day's heavy weather had passed, the mall began to fill with shoppers who had the day off.

    "Nothing stops me from a mall opening. I'm like the mailman," said Linda Smith, a 60-year-old secretary-specialist with the Department of Juvenile Justice from Brandon. "Through rain, snow, sleet; that's the kind of shopper I am."

    Barbara Bilger, 56, of Cranford, N.J., changed her vacation to be at the mall opening.

    "Everything on TV is so sad, I had to get away someplace," said Lori Thomas of Largo.

    Greco, a one-time mall industry executive, led by example. "Linda's an Olympic gold medalist shopper," he said as his wife bought a decorative night light for $24 at Brighton Collectibles.

    The wind-driven rain gave a first test to the new mall's weatherproofing. Two recently planted oak trees tipped over in the parking lot. Crews with caulking guns made a long list of roof leaks to plug. At United Colors of Benetton, two Italian designer wastebaskets were positioned to catch ceiling drips.

    A few stores like Nicole Miller, Betsey Johnson and Diesel were not quite ready to open but should within a day or two. Because some ingredients were stuck in transit, Starbucks poured free coffee drinks and asked for donations for a New York City Relief Fund.

    Most shoppers interviewed were wowed by the elegant looks of the mall. Some said their shopping habits will be permanently altered. They ooh'ed and ah'ed at the 96 stores new to the market, the hotel lobby-style seating and, in some cases, the prices.

    At Neiman Marcus, prices range from $20 for a child's hobby horse to $1.1-million for a necklace festooned with 97 emerald-cut Burma quality rubies and 167 diamonds. A matching set of earrings goes for another $170,000.

    Douglas Walbert, 41, a Largo real estate salesman, spent $400 there the first half hour on collectible gift items. "I've always shopped here," he said. "I love NM."

    "The prices are upscale, but we know that we're not going to Wal-Mart," said Mark Carson, an optician who lives in Valrico. "We'll be back a lot."

    But Lori Thomas of Largo said, "I think I'll be sticking with Tyrone Square Mall."

    The mall is part of a much bigger risk for Taubman Centers. The Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based real estate investment trust has invested $700-mlllion to open four of the 11 regional malls that the entire industry plans to open nationally in 2001.

    At 1.26-million square feet, the new mall is about the size of Countryside Mall, Tyrone Square Mall, University Mall and WestShore Plaza.

    So far 82 percent of International Plaza is leased, slightly less than the company's average occupancy rates of 89 percent. Taubman officials said they are confident they can fill the place within a year. If International Plaza is as successful as other Taubman malls, first year sales will approach $500-million.

    - Times staff writer Babita Persaud contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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