With its sunlit, glitzy interior jammed with shoppers gawking at the towering palms, murals celebrating the area's history, and a merry-go-round inspired by the Clyde Beatty Circus, the $150-million Valencia Town Center is more than the latest of retailing's big splendors.
It opened Thursday as not only the first regional shopping mall in the Santa Clarita Valley but an enterprise that swims against the tide, its developers and retailers gambling that they can navigate the choppy waters of a California economy battered by shutdowns, layoffs and cutbacks.
"It's a challenge, but we're very confident people are going to support it because there's no competing mall in this valley," said Thomas L. Lee, chairman and chief executive officer of Newhall Land & Farming Co., the mall's co-developer along with Chicago-based JMB Retail Properties Co.
"This is a significant step forward, too, for our whole valley," Lee said, "because it means we can be self-sufficient and not just another bedroom community."
Moments earlier, Lee and his colleagues had to grapple with a more immediate challenge--a noisy protest by about 150 labor sympathizers who revived a yearlong dispute by urging shoppers to boycott the mall, complaining that it had been built by too many "out-of-area contractors and workers."
Because of booing and chants of "Newhall Land shut us out" and "Tom Lee took our jobs," planned speeches by Lee and others, including Mayor Jill Klajic, were scrapped. All doors were hastily opened to a stampede of shoppers.
Lee and Newhall Land officials said 86% of the mall's contractors and 96% of its construction workers were based locally or in California. "The vast majority were from Greater Los Angeles, including the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley," company spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said.
The hordes of customers, meanwhile, seemed too busy gawking, munching fast food and shopping to care about the not-so-grand-opening ceremonies.
By 10 a.m., they quickly began filling the 790,000-square-foot Valencia Town Center's skylighted, marbled corridors bedecked with fountains, foliage, painstakingly detailed murals of Santa Clarita's pastoral yesterdays and signs modeled after vintage orange-crate labels.
Scores of children climbed onto the colorful, custom-built carousel that harks back to the 1930s and 1940s when Clyde Beatty's circus troupe used to winter in the Valley. Some of the carousel horses replicate those of that era.
A glint of hope for this mall had emerged in the pre-opening excitement two nights before. A male patron of a nearby coffee shop was overheard wisecracking to his female supper companions:
"Ladies, start your charge cards!"
With three anchor stores (May Co., J.C. Penney, and Sears, Roebuck & Co.), 110 retail shops (76 now open), a 10-screen movie theater and a food court soon to be joined by two restaurants, the Spanish-Mediterranean-style mall on a 65-acre site at Valencia Boulevard and McBean Parkway mirrors the rapid growth and urbanization of the area.
How can the Valencia Town Center look a murderous economy in the eye--just as Minnesota's more grandiose Mall of America, which includes an amusement park, did at its opening six weeks ago?
"We're very diverse out here--we're not dependent upon one economy or one business," Mayor Klajic said of Santa Clarita, which incorporated five years ago by merging most of the communities of Valencia, Newhall, Saugus and Canyon Country, and their 110,000 people.
"Most people who live here work all over the Los Angeles area, in high-tech and white-collar-type jobs. I don't think our valley has been as severely impacted, especially by the layoffs in the aerospace, auto and construction industries. If a mall is going to succeed anywhere, it's going to succeed here."
Indeed, Santa Clarita's unemployment rate stood at 6.6% as recently as June, contrasted with 9.8% for Los Angeles County, according to the state's Employment Development Department. And the mall itself has created about 2,000 jobs, about 90% of them filled by local residents, the developers say.
Developers of the Valencia Town Center say the prognosis appears good, if for no other reason than its proximity to a potential consumer base of 350,000, drawn from not just the Santa Clarita Valley but also from parts of the neighboring San Fernando and Antelope valleys and Ventura County.
No longer will Santa Clarita residents have to travel 20 to 30 miles "over the hill" to similar malls, such as the Northridge Fashion Center, the Glendale Galleria, Burbank's Media City Center or Palmdale's Antelope Valley Mall. As Lynn Harris, the city's director of community development, pointed out: "All the studies of this valley the past few years have shown that people here spend money, but they haven't spent their dollars here."