Auto Restoration

Written by Michael Grady Category: Valley News Issue: May 2013
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With the help of a well-known car museum, the embattled Metrocenter super-mall hopes to leave its crime-plagued past in the rearview mirror.

“You have a car that’s special to you – am I right?” Tommee Ranger bristles with enthusiasm as he speaks to a Nebraska fertilizer dealer. We’re at the new, somewhat oxymoronically-named Scottsdale International Metrocenter Auto Museum. Ranger, the museum owner, has cornered Mr. Nebraska and his wife to prove a point. “There is a particular car that has your heart,” he says. He’s trying to summon passion out of two people so stoic they seem borrowed from Grant Wood’s American Gothic. But he’s right. 

“Chevy Geo,” Nebraska says, like a sailor yearning for the sea. Ranger grins knowingly: “Did I tell you? Cars connect everybody!” Here on the west side, Metrocenter shoppers and merchants hope cars can connect the riches-to-rags mall to its storied past.

Built in 1973, the 1.4-million-square-foot Metrocenter was once the biggest shopping mall west of the Mississippi. With its skating rink, movie theater and high-end shopping, it towered over the Valley’s Reagan-era retail scene like a giant Teddy Ruxpin. But Metrocenter spent the ’90s learning that malls age as gracefully as child stars. The rink was bricked over. Burglaries spiked. Once an American Graffiti-style cruising spot, the Metrocenter oval developed a reputation as a car theft mecca: Gone in Sixty Seconds with a food court. The former hotspot reached its nadir in 2008, when rapper DMX was arrested there.
But Metrocenter’s falling star drew more than shaking heads and ownership changes. It also caught the attention of Carlyle Development Group, a company specializing in reclaiming declining properties. CDG purchased the mall for a song last year, because they saw the seeds for a second act.

“Metrocenter was very attractive from a repositioning prospect,” general manager Brent Meszaros says. “It’s got a high concentration of rooftops in the immediate area, a strong skeleton, and it’s still right off the I-17.” Concerted efforts with Phoenix police have driven Metrocenter’s property crimes down 75 percent, and car thefts have dropped by 95 percent, according to Meszaros.

Those who view Metrocenter as a cautionary tale would be surprised to see it now: Sunshine streams through its skylights onto wide concourses with glossy tile floors. Couples drift. Seniors dawdle. Children giggle in play areas. It looks like a high-end mall again – with a smaller head count.
Meszaros says that will build as people feel more secure. CDG’s security investments include a strong police presence around the mall. “Dial up the deterrent, and people see it isn’t how it used to be. That’s the first phase of bringing people back.” To keep them, Metrocenter held onto anchor stores Dillard’s, Macy’s and Sears while giving the local community representation inside – including a recent Our Fairy Godmother prom dress sale. Local scouts and choirs hold events. The only thing missing is a hook for the middle-aged male.
Cue the engines.
Gleaming with $5 million in collector cars and concept vehicles, the 60-vehicle Scottsdale International Metrocenter Auto Museum has kept the “Scottsdale” but left the Pavilions, rolling its crowd-drawing capacity and Barrett-Jackson-like mystique across the I-17. At Metrocenter, it will use tricked-out engines and graceful fenders to lure men whose wives have left them for shoe stores. It will quickly grow, Ranger promises, into an expanded, multi-floor museum with companion events and quarterly auctions outside.
“Remember ‘cruising Metrocenter’? Now, they’ll cruise in Metrocenter. That’s where the memories are.”

Metrocenter Facts

Opened: 1973
Cost: $100 million
Original anchors: Sears, Rhodes
Brothers, Goldwater’s, Diamond’s, The Broadway
Hollywood legacy: Parts of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) were filmed in the mall.
Fatal shootings: One. Police gunned down a man who brandished a firearm in the food court area in November 2006.