Ghost of a mall

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To passing drivers, El Con Mall looks like any other mall during peak shopping hours.

The south parking lot is strewn with cars and the stores surrounding the mall - Starbucks, RadioShack, Rubio's Mexican Grill - are bustling. Upon stepping into the mall's Mexican-style south entrance, you're immediately greeted by one of the most familiar sounds in any store - a yelping child.

But appearances can be deceiving.

The parked cars are centered close to the entrance and grow sparser and sparser as you move away, while the noisy child turns out to be one of only a handful people in the entire mall. There's little more pedestrian traffic inside Tucson's oldest shopping mall than there would be in one of the peaceful midtown neighborhoods that border it.

Everywhere you turn, you see empty, dusty rooms closed in by metal gates - the ghosts of former stores. Some of these rooms have been unoccupied for ten years.

There's nothing shuttered or gloomy about El Con; its elegantly designed ceiling windows allow in far more natural light than most other malls. Yet it feels abandoned and eerie. As you look down the mall at its handful of remaining stores, a lone approaching woman's high heels echo like a judge's gavel.

On the north side of the mall, just beyond the movie theater, stands a beautiful arch entranceway, harkening back to the El Conquistador Hotel, razed in 1968 to make more room for Tucson's first mall. Before it lie attractive circular benches, gravel and desert plants - the trappings of a wealthy Tucson homeowner's front lawn.

Walk through the impressive archway, and you'll find yourself in a large indoor area that resembles a half-completed city center. (Actually, it's a food court, built in 1999 - no restaurants have ever opened there.) Indeed, a banner in the middle of the mall, ""Building a New City Center,"" illustrated with a painting of a bustling 19th century avenue, promises a ""New El Con"" to come.

But that's all there is - a promise.

A small but loyal clientele

On Jan. 30, Dale Radtke's El Continental Barber Stylist will celebrate the start of its 45th year at El Con. Tucked away next to Macy's, the little shop has withstood the slow decline of El Con without a hitch.

""We're busy most of the time,"" Radtke said. ""I don't advertise much; it's all word-of-mouth.""

He attributes his store's continued success to a small, steady stream of regular customers - including Lute Olson - who appreciate the personal touch.

""We've maintained a consistent quality and clientele,"" he said. ""I love my work; it's a passion for me.""

""He never takes any time off,"" said Lorrie Holling, one of Radtke's regular customers. ""Usually it's packed in here.""

El Continental is one of only three locally owned businesses remaining at El Con. The others are corporately-owned, and therefore hang by the same tenuous, profit-fixated thread that yanked most of the other stores out of the mall. But Radtke said he's here to stay.

""It really makes a difference having locally owned businesses,"" Radtke said. ""This is our life's work. We live it and breathe it.""

Karen Bowe, who has owned El Con's Poster Warehouse and Gallery for 14 years, said El Con's sparse atmosphere has not kept people from finding out about her store, Tucson's largest poster shop.

""At Park Mall, my competition is everyone around me,"" she said. ""They may have spent their money before they see your aisle.""

Bowe, who also owns Framed to Perfection, another Tucson poster store, said the enormous space available at El Con - 10,000 square feet for her store - has enabled her to offer a much greater variety of art than other poster stores, including many local artists.

""On a weekend I'd say half our customers are students,"" she said. ""They're killing time before a movie; sometimes they'll have us hold something for them till after the movie.""

Other locally owned stores weren't as lucky. The popular Indian Arts and Crafts Store, an El Con institution since 1966, closed over the summer of 2006.

A fading institution

Like its ritzier cousin down the street, Park Place, El Con once boasted a wealth of popular shops and department stores. But the lure of the nearby mall proved too strong, and stores began changing teams, leaving El Con's east wing.

""Unfortunately, if one conglomerate moves out, they take all their stores with them,"" Bowe said. ""When they're being courted by places like Park Place, it's kind of difficult to compete. You could lose six stores when something like that happens.""

Dillard's closed in 1999, leaving an empty building that still stands to day. This month, El Con's Macy's began preparing to close down, leaving JCPenney the only remaining anchor store with a mall entrance.

Journalism senior Tess Martinez recently paid her first visit in three years to El Con, eager to see the selections at the newly opened Ross Dress For Less. She said she was shocked by how desolate the mall interior was.

""My brother used to have a job at the Magpies stand there and they had to shut down because there wasn't anyone there,"" she said.

Yet the location - apart from Reid Park and not far from downtown - is a good one, and El Con's satellite stores have prospered. Last year, cult fast-food establishment In-N-Out Burger opened a location, and response was so overwhelming that customers found themselves waiting in line for hours.

Reviving a community landmark

There have been some near-legendary attempts to save El Con from its slow, steady drift into oblivion.

In 1999, El Con's owners - the heirs of its original founders - attempted to lay the groundwork for a host of huge new ""box"" stores, like Wal-Mart. Neighborhood councils revolted against it, saying the construction would blight the peace of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Home Depot and a Target, neither with mall entrances, did arrive, but the rejuvenation plan choked to a halt.

Martinez said she thinks that the mall ought to open more art galleries, and follow the example of some of downtown's community-centered buildings.

""I don't really know that we need another shopping mall, unless it was a different kind of mall that was more community-based,"" she said.

She's not the first to have that idea. Last year the Arizona Daily Star called for El Con to tear down its unused buildings and return to its roots as a center for community life, adding a grocery store, outdoors pavilions and a stage for local performers.

Whatever option the mall's owners choose, it seems unlikely that El Con can ever again compete with the likes of the corporately-funded Park Place. Yet a beloved Tucson landmark surely deserves better than to become a desolate, empty warehouse.

Ironically, the mall's few customers now are liable to be attracted by the very thing that killed off its stores - the sparsity of traffic. Bowe recalled that some UA players, like Channing Frye, would frequently pop into her store after games.

""They loved that they could just get in here and get right out again,"" she said.


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