Great Mall of the Great Plains demolition begins with the future of the site unclear

The $110 million, 812,000-square-foot Great Mall of the Great Plains got off to a great start in Olathe, drawing nearly 1 million visitors during its first month of operations in mid-1997.

It was expected to generate more than $200 million in annual sales and create as many as 3,000 jobs.

But after that promising start, it quickly went downhill. Many national brands pulled out. Smaller retailers closed or relocated. The mall shuttered in September 2015.

On Monday, the owners, the Great Olathe Center LLC, an entity of the Van Tuyl Group, started demolishing the mall, a process that will take about six months. But they have not determined the next use for the site at Interstate 35 and 151st Street.

Burlington Coat Factory will remain open during the demolition.

When the Great Mall opened nearly two decades ago, the “value center” offered a mix of stores selling merchandise at bargain prices — one of only eight such malls in the country. It also emphasized convenience with the 160 stores, along with a 16-screen movie theater, all on one level.

It had four rest areas, a food court surrounded by artificial topiaries, and carpets that changed from green and purple stripes to yellow and red swirls to black and yellow checks as customers strolled the circular route through the four sections: fashion, home and hobby, sports and adventure, and technology and entertainment.

Mall officials boasted that it would draw 2.5 million visitors by the end of 1997 and 8.5 million visitors by the end of 1998. A second entertainment phase was scheduled to open in 1999.

But the Great Mall soon began to struggle and never recovered from the economic downturn, changes in customers’ shopping habits and other factors. Former customers said the mall didn’t have a strong identity and the stores didn’t offer the deep discounts they expected from outlet and value retailers.

National retailers like Dillard’s, Kitchen & Co., and Oshman’s SuperSports USA left. Smaller retailers relocated or closed.

The mall’s best year was its first full year of operation, when annual sales were $104.2 million. Sales were down to $78 million in 2004, when tax abatements granted by the city ended and the mall’s owners stopped reporting figures to the city. It was sold for $20.5 million in January 2009. Many spaces had long been dark when the mall finally shut down in September 2015.

The current owners said they will take the mall down to dirt, all the away around Burlington Coat Factory. That could make the 112-acre site easier to market to another user.

“We’ve looked at mixed use — apartments, offices and retail, although not on the magnitude that was there — and education and call centers,” said Jeff Smith, spokesman for VanTrust Real Estate. “It’s zoned commercial, so for apartments or industrial it would have to go through zoning with a lot of community input.”

Burlington has a lease and plans to continue to operate in its current building. Burlington officials could not be reached for comment, and the mall owners declined to comment on the length of the lease.

The owners also will maintain an access road to outlying parcels with a hotel, a couple of restaurants and a bank.

Area critics dubbed the mall the “Great Flop of the Great Plains,” but others would like the 112 acres to continue as retail, even a “Zona Rosa South.”

In a statement, Tim McKee, CEO of the Olathe Chamber of Commerce, said: “We’re really excited about the future. It’s a great location, and VanTrust is one of the premier developers in the area.”

As one former employee said on Facebook: “Sad to see it go, but at the same time its time has come.”

Joyce Smith: 816-234-4692, @JoyceKC

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