The Mall of America is a widely recognized symbol of American consumerism. In recent weeks, the mall has also moved onto the list of potential targets for terrorism. But despite increasing concern about safety at the Mall, shoppers have not stayed away.
The FBI says it knows of no specific threats against the Mall of America. Still, about a week ago, internal federal government reports indicated that terrorists had studied the mall, perhaps as a potential target.
That made sense to Marlin Gilhousen, who at 10 on a weekday morning is walking for exercise, as he has done pretty much every day for the last seven years.
"I thought it was logical. I don't know what proof they ever had. But when you get to be 75 years old, you don't worry about things like that," she said.
The mall has stepped up security. But the mall's developer and part owner, the Simon Property Group would not specifically comment on what steps have been taken. In a written statement, the company would only say mall officials are working closely with the FBI and local law enforcement officials, and have heightened security and preparedness. In the past weeks, the mall has posted security guards at some of its 28 enterances to check shoppers' bags. But they left the other 20 or so enterances unmanned.
David Fick, a retail analyst for Legg Mason Wood Walker in Baltimore, says increasing security at the mall is a delicate process. Malls, he says, are popular because they're convenient. The less convenient they become, the fewer people shop there.
"When you're in an open environment and you're trying to attract people, the last thing you want is for security to become so visible that it becomes an impediment to the consumer coming in," he said.
And the sheer scale of the mall makes it prohibitively expensive to attempt any robust, full-scale security measures.
"The notion of putting a lot ill-trained security personnel all over the place searching everybody and everything is utter nonsense," said Tony Bouza, a former Minneapolis police chief who has written about terrorism.
Bouza says the mall's existing security measures, with some improvements, may be adequate. But to double and quadruple those measures, Bouza said, would be folly.
"They're not quite as naked and exposed as the world would have you believe. The reality is there is no point in undertaking some ruinously expensive security operations that are not going to intercept knowledgeable terrorists," Bouza said.
The talk of threats and increased security do not seem to have deterred many shoppers. Shopkeepers in the mall say traffic dropped of late, but has since returned close to normal
"People are slowing coming back. I mean the weekends now are just mobbed by gobs and gobs of people," said Sonny Favell, who works at the Hush Puppies shop on the mall's second level. On a weekday afternoon, the halls around his store were virtually empty. He said this is a slow time of the year anyway.
Favell says the people he talks to aren't scared, and neither is he.
"If someone is low minded to attack a mall just because it's got America on it, well I can't really worry about that, because they're going to do anything they want anyway. It's like a prize fighter, you know you could possibly get knocked down in a fight. But yet you go to a fight because that's who you are and that's what you do. This is who I am. This is what I do," he said.
It seems that many consumers are thinking like Favell. Legg Mason's David Fick also said traffic at the Mall of America is back to normal. But that, he said, doesn't mean people are buying.
"Shoppers are there, but we think more for the social, get out of the house thing, they're tired of watching CNN all day long. They're looking to be with other people, but it's not necessarily translating into sales results at this point," Fick said.
While overall mall traffic may be back to normal, Fick said tourist traffic at the Mall has been reduced considerably as fewer people fly.
Sherry Ralson and her husband Scott drove from Chicago to the Twin Cities expressly to shop at the mall. Scott Ralson had no concerns, while Sherry had some deep reservations after she heard terrorists might have studied the Mall.
"It makes you think about where you want to go and if you really want to go there, it really does, after that happened. Because it's your life and you have to be prepared to have your own life in your own hands. Because it's a whole different way of life now, you just never know," she said.