Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

THE MALL turns 50

From the moment it opened, Polo Park was huge in Winnipeg's profile

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FOUR months before the Polo Park shopping centre opened its doors, the chairman of the board of Simpson-Sears assured people a large suburban mall would not sound a death knell for downtown stores.

E. J. Burton didn't have a crystal ball, it seems.

Burton, his company and the developers of the mall knew full well many people didn't like driving downtown. They had the answer.

"This kind of development has a special appeal for women and mothers of small children," Burton said in 1959. "Women and men, too, for that matter would rather drive away to shop providing there is a good access to the shopping centre."

The Simpson-Sears store opened in May, 1959. The mall itself opened Aug. 20 of the same year.

Originally, it was a pedestrian mall with 40 stores. There was no roof and shoppers walked outside from store to store.

It was built on the site of the former Polo Park racetrack. The mall quickly became a destination for Winnipeggers.

The day Sears opened, the Winnipeg Free Press reported huge traffic problems in the area.

"Cars by the thousands jammed the parking lot and the adjoining streets at the Polo Park shopping centre Friday night," the story read. "Around 8 p.m., there were so many cars trying to get out and in of the centre that it seemed as if downtown Winnipeg must be empty."

It seems the same way today.

At opening, Sears offered bargains for the whole family. Nylons were 50 cents. Reversible car coats for boys or girls were $3.33. Chenille bedspreads were $6.99.

Newspaper ads extolled the features of the escalators.

"Step-savers for your convenience to make carrying your shopping so much easier by carrying you from floor to floor quickly, safely and effortlessly."

The mall was a bold and innovative place when it opened 50 years ago. It was filled with public art, was fresh and new and boasted 3,500 parking spaces.

It was bigger and better than anything this city had seen.

Mayor Stephen Juba and Premier Duff Roblin cut the ribbon at the official opening.

Polo Park was a boon to the local economy. For months, help-wanted ads appeared in the paper with stores seeking typists, clerks, managers and telephone operators.

Many of the workers would spend their careers at Polo Park. On Aug. 20, the mall will honour 97 employees who have worked at the mall for 20 years or more.

One woman has worked at Sear's for the entire 50 years it has been open.

While the mall drew well-known chain stores, it also attracted local entrepreneurs. Three stores owned by Winnipeggers -- Broadway Florists, Fashionette Hair Stylists and Mario's -- have been in the mall since opening day.

Deborah Green, the mall's general manager, says part of Polo Park's success is based on the fact people need a place to gather.

"Anyone who lives here has agreed to meet someone in the food court, or a centre court or by the Polo Pony," she says, "You have a sense of belonging. This is my bench. This is where I have my cup of coffee. There's that sense of familiarity, of comfort."

Green cites the mall walkers as an example. They are a group of approximately 200 people, many of them seniors, who arrive every morning before the stores open to socialize and get some exercise.

"Some walk along with their iPods on. Others walk in large groups," she says.

"There's one woman, Hazel, who shows up wearing makeup and pearls. She's 95. I think she feels this is her family."

Sandra Hagenaars, the mall's director of marketing, says she has often seen couples walking together. When one of the pair passes away, the survivor will eventually come back.

"They close ranks around them," Hagenaars says. "They look after each other."

Tweens and teens also use the mall as the gathering spot. As a group with more disposable income than their parents, they're valued customers.

"It seems to be the place where they're allowed to go by themselves for the first time. Their parents will give them $20, drop them off and arrange a meeting place. It's a safe environment. If they have any kind of problem they can walk into any store and get help."

It is still the largest mall in the city and has the highest traffic volume.

Polo Park today bears no resemblance to the place that caused traffic jams in 1959. In 1963, a roof was built to cover the stores. It became the first enclosed shopping centre in the city.

In the late '60s, the concrete sidewalks were resurfaced.

The bold modern art that graced the outdoor spaces has disappeared. Only the metal Polo Pony remains. That sculpture will be the site of a historical display and a time capsule that will be sealed in a year's time.

"We want people's memories of Polo Park," Hagenaars says. "If you're six or 15 or 60, you have some memories here."

The late '60s also saw a major renovation when the two-level Eaton's store (remember them?) was added. There were two grocery stores in the mall at the time. Loblaws and Dominion were moved to make room for Eaton's.

Today, Safeway is the only grocery store.

A decade after the first renovation, skylights and the centre court fountain and pool were added.

In 1986, the second level of stores was added.

In 2007, Polo Park began another massive renovation. It added 20,000 square feet to the mall. There are now 6,000 parking spaces, a fact that seems impossible to believe when you're trying to find a spot in December.

Green and Hagenaars don't think big-box stores will have a negative effect on the mall. If anything, Polo Park's presence has led to the arrival of stores like Best Buy and Old Navy.

"The customers are already out here," says Green. "Because of our climate, people will always choose to shop indoors."

No one under the age of 55 can remember a time without malls, massive places where everything a heart could desire could be bought. Teenagers assume their favourite stores will eventually arrive here.

We are still provincial enough that lines formed when Old Navy opened.

The Sephora makeup store that recently opened in Polo Park caused heart murmurs in teenage girls across town.

If there's a recession going on, there's no sign of it at the mall.

"I think people just feel comfortable here," says Green. "Even if you're not shopping, people like to come here."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

What the mall offers

(other than the chance to spend money):

"ö Free baby bottle warming.

"ö A coat check where you can leave your coat and purchases. The price? A mere $1 an item.

"ö Double and single strollers can be rented for $3.50. The rental fees are donated to the HSC Women's Hospital.

"ö There are two complimentary electric scooters available at Guest Services. Use is first come, first served. You need to leave a credit card imprint.

"ö Baby needs an immediate changing? You can get disposable diapers and baby wipes at Guest Services.

"ö Popped a button or developed a droopy hem? You can get free needles, threads, buttons and safety pins for emergency repairs.

"ö Shopped until you dropped? First aid and CPR-trained personnel are always available during mall hours.

"ö New in town? You can get tourist information and brochures at the mall.

"ö Wheelchairs and walkers are complimentary for customers.

�ñº

There are eight original stores in Polo Park.

Sears Canada was the first major partner, opening in May, 1959.

When the mall officially opened, Broadway Florists, Fashionette Hair Stylists, Mario's Beauty Salon, Perth's, the Polo Park Bowling Centre, Tip Top Tailors and Zellers joined Sears. They're all still open at the mall.

Broadway Florists, Fashionette Hair Stylists and Mario's are all locally owned.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2009 A7

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