When Bannister opened in the early 1980s, it was the first mall in the city to have four major department stores -- Dillard's, the Jones Store, J.C. Penney and Sears. Now Dillard's is closed. Penney's is empty. There's still shopping to be done -- at Sears, a Hallmark store, a Victoria's Secret, a Limited, a Bath & Body Works, three Foot Lockers, the Dollar Plus and Dena's Al-Suk (which sells incense, oils and Islamic fashions), among other stores. But bargain hunters have to contend with the depressing sight of chained-up storefronts and a food court with rows of clean, perfectly aligned, empty, white plastic chairs.
"The mall only prospered for about 10 years," says Lou Austin, a lawyer with offices east of the mall, across Hillcrest Road. Austin heads the area's Community Improvement District, made up of business owners who have put a special tax on themselves and their customers to raise money so they can fix up their 266 acres of blight -- and nurture the fragile commerce that remains. "I've lived 1,800 feet from the edge of Bannister Mall since 1959," Austin adds, just to stake out his territory. "My mother still lives on adjoining property. I'm a product of the local school. I've seen this area go through the whole cycle: the beginning of the mall, its blossoming and its long, arduous decline."
I thought about Bannister Mall on June 17, when Independence city officials announced that they were the lucky ones who'd finally sealed a deal with Bass Pro Shops. The people of Independence would shell out $71 million in public money to help John Morris' Springfield, Missouri-based tourist attraction put in a mammoth store, surrounded by a "nature park," an 18-acre lake and a faux-rustic hotel.
Kansas City, Missouri, leaders once said they'd be doing all that at Bannister Mall, back in October 2001. After a season of excruciating negotiations among the mall's owner, the Economic Development Corporation, neighborhood leaders, representatives from the Hickman Mills School District (who stood to lose a lot of money in the massive tax breaks the city was preparing to give to Bass Pro), state representatives, a cavalry of development lawyers and various other interests, the enormous -- and enormously complex -- financing package was reportedly secure ("Blight Crawlers," February 14, 2002). With its man-made 1.5 acre lagoon, Bass Pro would transform a sagging corner of town. The mall was to become a tourist destination itself, the Three Trails Center, celebrating the unique spot where the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails passed through on their way west. By the fall of 2002, though, the deal had evaporated. Publicly, everybody said it was the May Company, which owns the Jones Store, that had refused to make way for Bass Pro. It's likely, though, that the supersize deal simply collapsed under its own weight.
Cities all over the metro then began courting the glorified bait shack. For a few weeks in March 2003, Kansas City leaders even talked about trying to put one downtown, which would have resulted in plenty of incentives -- incentives for local loft dwellers to decamp for much more urban Omaha, that is.
The loss was heartbreaking for the folks at Bannister, so when I heard the news about Bass Pro moving to Independence, I wondered how they were taking it.
The psychological letdown after losing Bass Pro was like mourning a lost loved one, Austin admits. But you want to know something? "Quite honestly, a lot of community folks were over this a long time ago and on to other, better things," Austin says.