Signs of Life

Could burgers and cheap clothes be El Con's salvation?

Many Tucsonans will tell you that El Con Mall is doomed, a failure as an establishment.

The interior of Tucson's oldest mall is nearly vacant, with the desolate halls of each wing holding only a speckling of open stores. The only activity inside the mall seems to be generated by longtime anchors Macy's and JCPenney.

However, there are actually some honest-to-goodness signs--after years of false promises and overstated claims by mall management--that El Con Mall proper may finally see some sort of revival.

Since In-N-Out opened on April 24, a distracting amount of traffic has come to the exterior of El Con Mall, as a mass of burger-loving followers flocked to the chain.

El Con Mall spokeswoman Susan Allen said mall management expected In-N-Out Burger to draw large crowds. And believe it or not, In-N-Out has consequently created more business for the handful of shops remaining inside the mall.

Carol's Yogurt Shoppe is one of those veteran stores inside El Con Mall. Owner Carol Mendelson, who has been in business at El Con Mall almost 23 years, says she has already noticed a great deal of change, thanks to In-N-Out's opening.

"I have all these people coming from In-N-Out to get dessert," says Mendelson.

The traffic that In-N-Out has generated inside El Con Mall's interior is not to be taken lightly: Mendelson says that she has not been this busy at her yogurt stand in years.

"I came in at 10 a.m., and I walked out at 5:30 p.m., and I never sat down," says Mendelson about one recent day. "Those tables were never empty."

On one recent Monday, Mendelson had eight customers approach her stand to purchase a cone in the span of 15 minutes. (This may not sound like a lot, but if you've been inside El Con at any time within the past couple of years, you know that number is significant.)

Allen says she's positive that another addition to the mall--a Ross Dress for Less--will bring in more customers.

"You need a large store that acts like a traffic generator," says Allen. "Small retailers will catch on eventually."

The Ross Dress for Less, which will take 30,000 square feet of space, is already under construction on El Con's west wing.

Robert Lusch, department head and professor of marketing of the UA Eller College of Management, thinks that one hope for El Con Mall is to strive to be a unique shopping center and offer specialty services.

"The best option would be not to duplicate Tucson or Park Place Mall," says Lusch. "They should try not to go head to head with other malls, and should focus on intangibles and services."

Lusch remembers the last time he visited El Con Mall. That was 25 years ago, years after the mall was built in 1960, before there was such a thing as Park Place Mall.

"It was a great big hit at the time; it was quite the buzz, very vibrant with lots of activity," he recalls.

The official Web site for El Con Mall promises plans to renovate the shopping center, with a variety of unique retail shops, the opportunity to purchase fresh produce, art galleries and a Spanish Colonial-style design.

Of course, that part of the Web site carries a 2001 copyright date.

While the main portion of the mall has languished, the exterior of the mall has seen a lot of construction, and now offers chain stores such as Target, Home Depot, Starbucks, Claim Jumper, Rubio's and, of course, In-N-Out, as well as a popular movie theater. Krispy Kreme, which closed down after the franchisee filed for bankruptcy, will soon be replaced by a Chick-Fil-A.

Mendelson thinks that the Ross Dress for Less will add to the increased customer traffic that has surfaced in In-N-Out's successful wake. She compares El Con to Foothills Mall, noting that Foothills Mall had practically nothing happening in the interior before new businesses on the outside brought customers back.

"Everything that is happening now is a positive," she says. "I have no doubt in my mind that within the next year, it will be a whole different feeling."