Independence gets a fake fishing hole, and Bannister Mall gets a big fish story.

The One That Got Away 

Independence gets a fake fishing hole, and Bannister Mall gets a big fish story.

With its empty prairie of cracked parking spaces, Bannister Mall is one of the saddest places in town.

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.

Better things? What could possibly be better than Bass Pro?

Ball cypress trees, for one. Earlier this summer, Austin stood in the median of Hillcrest Road with a shovel and 24 saplings. "It's the beginning of a change in the lay of the land," he says. "We bought 'em, and we're going to put them in on behalf of the city, and we're going to maintain them. We're gonna have fun. This is how you change."

It's not exactly the kind of landscaping that Austin and his neighbors were excited about when they thought a fishing hole would take up some of Bannister's 7,000 parking spaces. But these days, Austin gets worked up about much less fancy things.

"We're working on a master plan for the district," Austin says, slipping into the bureaucratic lingo of someone who spends a lot of time working with City Hall's planning department. "We pushed to have 87th Street improvements extended from I-435 across our northern boundary over to Newton Avenue, which gives us a gateway to Bruce Watkins Drive," he adds. "I'm a great believer in mass transit, and we're very closely working with the ATA and have secured funding for $1.4 million transit station adjacent to the mall. It looks like a rail station from about 1890 to 1900, all iron, with a Victorian, grassy courtyard that also serves as storm-water retention."

And that's a big deal, because runoff becomes a huge problem when you cover the earth with concrete.

"We have more asphalt out here than -- you know anybody who wants to buy asphalt? Bannister Road, which is so glorious in all of its concrete ugliness, we just did a feasibility study, and we're going to recommend that MoDOT fund beautification with trees, grass medians and walking trails."

After the Bass Pro failure, the mall's owners (TIAA-CREF, the national Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund) sold it to Stanley Spigel of Texas. Austin describes him as a very nice and extremely sharp businessman. Spigel specializes in dealing with "distressed properties," and Austin says he has offered to donate -- donate -- the former J.C. Penney building to a nonprofit institution of some sort, like a hospital or college. Austin won't name prospective tenants, but he's been showing the property to possible takers and expects to sign one within a year. And when he does, he'll demand that it put in windows to humanize the brown monolith.

"I've seen drawings of apartment buildings out on parking lots," he adds.

There's more, but you get the idea. Austin and his neighbors have learned an important lesson that can't be measured in tax breaks.

"I think it brought us back to reality," he says of the Bass Pro experience. "That we have a very big job to do ahead of us to successfully reinvent ourselves. I think too many people -- including myself -- got lazy with the idea that somehow Mr. Morris and his wonderful company were going to elevate all of us just by the fact that they were going to locate here. We tended to neglect some of our responsibilities and the realism that the neighborhood rises and falls on people who live there, all of them, not just one retail account."

It's a lesson that might prove instructive this summer. A couple of weeks ago, on June 30, came the announcement that developers would tear down the Blue Ridge Mall and replace part of it with a Wal-Mart Supercenter while they looked for other big-box tenants. Last week there was more dying-mall news: Wal-Mart announced plans to buy Mission Center and put in another Supercenter there.

There's a Supercenter across from Bannister Mall, too. But Wal-Mart isn't a cure-all, any more than the rapidly proliferating Bass Pro. Just ask the folks at Wal-Mart Realty. Part of their job is to find new uses for dead Wal-Marts.

"In my territory, I've got approximately 85 buildings partially or completely vacant," says Tom Allen, who handles Wal-Mart Realty's mid-central division (which includes Missouri). Nationwide, the company has 361 "old available" buildings just waiting for investors.

Lou Austin and the folks at Bannister are tired of waiting. "We see a future, and we're working on an action plan that will take us there," Austin says. "It won't be as glitzy, but it will last a lot longer than the first one did."


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