Episode 4: The Legend Of Concord Mills Mall
Welcome to "A Trifling Place," a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.
So when I first arrived in Charlotte, I was handed the latest edition of a book called the Insider's Guide to Charlotte. It had the usual highlights you would expect, but then I saw something really strange. It says Concord Mills Mall is the state's top tourist destination.
With all of its beautiful mountains and beaches – an outlet shopping mall a few miles outside Charlotte – is number one?
Well, that's how the legend goes. So I needed to do some investigating to see if there was any truth to the claim.
The website for the North Carolina Division of Tourism refers to Concord Mills Mall as the "#1 shopping entertainment destination of the Carolinas." It also says it's one of the state's most popular visitor attractions.
But that's as far as the agency goes. But it wasn't always that way. There's definitely a history of misleading reporting when it comes to the mall.
The 1.4-million-square-foot mall opened in September of 1999. It was only a year later, many newspapers, including The Charlotte Observer, reported that it was second only to Blue Ridge Parkway in attracting visitors to the state. And just a few years later, it claimed the number one spot. Problem is, the list was comprised primarily of places that volunteered their attendance figures. There's even a disclaimer on the list. But many in the media didn't read the fine print. Wit Tuttell is North Carolina's director of tourism marketing. Here's what he thinks happened.
"So there was a listing but on the listing it says 'the information is for editorial purposes only and only those attractions reported are included on this list'," Tuttell says. "So I'm assuming the way they looked at it back then was, it's a listing of attraction figures but not a ranking of the top attractions in the state."
So according to Tuttell, the list was misinterpreted and perceived as a ranking. It's a problematic list, because self-reported attendance figures don't distinguish between locals and tourists. And there are other problems like what even qualifies as an attraction. Tuttell gives the hypothetical example of a rest stop.
"How do they estimate the number of visitors that come in to a rest stop?" Tuttell asked. "Well they can count the number of toilet flushes and then you estimate that by the number of people per car and those kinds of things."
Back to Concord Mills. The legend of the mall's tourism prowess continues to live on in guidebooks and of course the internet. Like the website for the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. It says Concord Mills has more than 17 million visitors a year, making it the most visited attraction in North Carolina.
The marketing team at Concord Mills used to say this too, but stopped doing so around 2006.
Still, Donna Carpenter, the head of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau says she has no reason to doubt that the information is accurate. After all, no one has told her otherwise.
"Since they don't release the number and they don't dispute the number, it's the number we use," Carpenter says.
I met with Holly Roberson in the mall's food court. She's the mall's marketing director. And guess what's in the middle of the food court? Horses.
OK, well, not real ones. But there is a carousel for kids.
"We have the options of shopping, eating and entertainment altogether in one venue," Roberson says. "So you can come here and just grab some lunch and go in a couple of stores, be here an hour. Or you can come here and stay all day."
Classic shoppertainment. And they're really good at it. People come to the mall to get great deals at a mix of high-end and low-end stores – including a dollar store. But also to exercise, watch a movie, drive go-karts in a NASCAR-themed park and even learn a little history. The mall itself is coincidentally shaped like the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway with over 200 stores along an oval-track layout. And like many malls, there's a devoted group of mall-walkers who show up every day.
I spoke to many people who said shopping wasn't the main reason for their visit. Eleanor Franzese of Charlotte was there with her two boys and girl.
"We like the carousel, the play-area, the fish at the Outdoor World, it's just a kid destination for me, I'm not much of a shopper," Franzese says.
Even so, Franzese thought it was strange that the mall has a history of being hyped as a top draw for tourists. She says she would probably rank the beaches as the top tourist destination in the state, followed by the mountains.
But there are people who drive a long distance to come here. Like Johnny Seagraves.
"I'm going in there to buy me a rifle," Seagraves says.
Johnny drove from Greensboro with his wife to buy a rifle at Bass Pro Shops. He can take or leave the mall, but for Johnny, Bass Pro Shops is the destination.
"It's nice. You know there's nothing wrong with [the mall]," Seagraves says. "But like I said that right there attracts – a lot of hunters and fisherman. This [mall] don't attract me at all. Not at all."
Bass Pro Shops is a big part of the mall's claim to fame. It's the only one in the state.
One of its big attractions is a large aquarium with catfish, bass and other gamefish.
But soon another aquarium may be built at Concord Mills. Just last week, Cabarrus County approved incentives for a 30,000 square foot aquarium.
So who knows, maybe the legend of Concord Mills Mall, will continue to grow.