North County Fair Opens : A Tale of Two Malls: The Parking Lots Tell the Story

Times Staff Writer

At one end of town, shopping mall groupies converged to pay homage at their newest temple, the 180-store North County Fair.

There was confetti shot from rooftop cannons, 5,000 helium-filled balloons and seven huge hot-air balloons, cheerleaders, magicians, music makers and speech makers. Politicians thanked private capitalists and private capitalists thanked politicians. It was a golly, gee-whiz, back-slapping ribbon-cutting. And then the shoppers came: they shopped, they spent and they left, making room for more.

Welcome to North County Fair, Southern California’s newest enclosed shopping mall, which opened Thursday morning to generally good reviews, after seven years of planning.


Four miles away in the center of town, business was, well, less than fair at the 22-year-old Escondido Village Mall--Southern California’s first enclosed shopping mall.

Whereas the 5,700-space parking lot at North County Fair was at more than 90% of capacity most of the day, shoppers at Escondido Village Mall could park in the spaces directly in front of the Walker Scott department store at mid-afternoon, no problem.

At North County Fair, shoppers hustled and jostled from store to store to get their free flowers, free balloons, free sun visors, free chocolate, free nuts and, at one store, a spin on a “wheel of fortune” with opportunities to win a free $300 diamond ring--or, more likely, a 25% discount card. At the Escondido Village Mall, meanwhile, only seven persons were visible in one of the mall’s wings--and two of them were employees on a break. On the other hand, nobody was jostled at Escondido Village Mall.

“It’s beautiful and fantastic--the diversity, the architecture, the storefronts,” said Bill Collier, who spent part of the morning at North County Fair. Then, in the afternoon, he returned to his post as general manager of Walker Scott at Escondido Village Mall. He took in stride the peace and quiet of his own store.

“Our customers have been coming here for 20 years,” he said. “Curiosity will take them to North County (Fair), but they’ll be back. Escondido has been good to us and we’ll be here when they come back. We expect to have a quiet period for 10 days or so, but we should be back to normal in six weeks.”

Indeed, Thursday was North County Fair’s day in the sun, which broke through the rainclouds in time for the morning’s pomp and ceremony.

Of the 176 mall stores that eventually will occupy the 1.3-million-square-foot mall, 122 were opened by Thursday afternoon--”as many as have ever opened at one time in a mall anywhere in the country,” boasted John Gilchrist, president of Ernest W. Hahn Inc., which built, leased and is the major owner of the center. May Centers Inc. is the mall manager and a partner in the development.

Also opening on Thursday were Sears--which vacated its building in the Escondido Village Mall--and Robinson’s. The Broadway and May Co. opened a week earlier, and the other two major department stores, Nordstrom and JC Penney, will open in the fall. North County Fair is one of only 17 shopping malls in the United States with six major department stores, and is the largest enclosed mall in San Diego County.

Both The Broadway and May Co. reported sales during the first week at 40% above projections, and a pre-opening sale for Robinson’s customers on Wednesday had sales 20% above projections, according to Jim Braun, San Diego County regional manager for May Centers, which also operates Plaza Camino Real in Carlsbad, La Jolla Village Square, Mission Valley Center and Plaza Bonita.

Braun estimated that the opening of North County Fair would reduce sales at Plaza Camino Real by 6%, and affect the other regional malls to a lesser degree.

He said North County Fair’s parking lot was virtually saturated during the day and estimated that more than 80,000 shoppers would have visited the mall by day’s end, concluded by a Dick Clark rock ‘n’ roll show Thursday evening.

Escondido police said there were no significant traffic snarls at Interstate 15 and Via Rancho Parkway, site of the center, even though there were earlier concerns that traffic would back up on the freeway off-ramp.

The day was not without its glitches, however.

A tow truck was called to move Mayor Ernie Cowan’s car before the ribbon cutting because it was parked where it shouldn’t have been. One of the hot air balloons failed to lift off from the parking lot. And when Gilchrist excused himself from a lengthy Japanese television interview on shopping malls in order to wet his whistle, he discovered that the food court’s water fountain didn’t work.

Inside the mall, shoppers generally were enthusiastic about what they saw.

“I like absolutely everything about it,” said Tineke Klymman of Escondido. “We’ve needed this for so many years. This mall has atmosphere; it’s pleasant and friendly and has lots of variety. There are some malls you can walk through and never buy anything. But I’ll be buying when I walk through this one.”

Jennifer Hone, one of several cheerleaders from neighboring San Pasqual High School who attended the grand opening in uniform, said she and her friends were excited by the mall’s presence. “We used to sit around and wonder, ‘Well, what will we do tonight?’ Now we know,” she said.

Ann Hogshead said she moved to Escondido seven years ago “and thought I had come to the end of the earth. Nothing was happening here. There was no culture, not much of a library and not much shopping. Now we’ve got a beautiful library, we’re getting a cultural arts center and now we have this. We’re growing up.”

Jean Cartwright lives in Oceanside but said she will drive past Plaza Camino Real to shop at North County Fair. “The merchandise is better displayed and there’s more variety,” she said. “The Carlsbad mall is too trendy. This is more upscale, more high fashion.”

But Cartwright said she did not necessarily consider North County Fair as a shopper’s end-all: “To some degree, if you’ve seen one circus, you’ve seen them all. A rose is a rose is a rose. This is a mall. A nice mall, but a mall.”

Executives at the 50-store Escondido Village Mall also took the opening of North County Fair with a grain of philosophy. “There was going to be a new mall somewhere in inland North County, so it’s just as well that’s in Escondido,” said Roger Granbo, general manager of the older mall, which has undergone extensive renovation in recent months.

Jackie Stanley, part owner of Julian and Rochelle’s, a china and gift store, said she was concerned that “sure, people will like the big department stores and may go there for their china. But we know our customers’ names and their tastes. We think we’ll still attract customers who want good service.”

Shopper Dora Galt said the opening of North County Fair wouldn’t affect her patronage of the older mall. “It use to be that I’d shop here (Escondido Village Mall) and at Plaza Camino Real in Carlsbad,” she said. “Now, I’ll shop here and at North County Fair.”