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Mall opens children's play zone

Children have a new play area at Paul Bunyan Mall near center court. The indoor play land features a water theme and has seating for parents and grandparents who could also opt to utilize the mall’s new high-speed WiFi. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- How does a shopping center compete in a growing online marketplace?

"You bring people here," said Alan Retkinski, president of Lexington Realty International, the firm that manages Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Mall. "People want to shop here, they want to spend the day someplace. .. They want the opportunity to do something and this is the very situation we can provide."

Lexington Realty came to Bemidji 18 months ago as the mall's new management firm. At the time, Retkinski envisioned a family friendly mall with an indoor play space, WiFi access and comfortable seating.

Those visions have since come to fruition. Paul Bunyan Mall is celebrating the opening of its newest addition: a 600 square-foot indoor play space. Created by Kiddy Zone, the play land features an underwater theme with a lighthouse-inspired slide and child-friendly climbing structures in the shapes of a rowboat, dolphin, crab and clownfish.

"Because Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there didn't seem to be anything that could surpass that concept," said Susan Goudge, mall manager. "Seeing it fully operational has been inspiring."

The whole area has a soft, bouncy floor and there is exterior seating for parents and guardians.

The primary sponsor of the play land is Midcontinent Communications, which has also partnered with the mall to offer high-speed WiFi throughout its properties and to provide two large-screen TVs at center court, adjacent to the new play land.

There are two accesses to the play area, and the main archway -- welcoming visitors to the Midco Bay Play Zone -- greets families with brightly colored elements that display their own names. A pink seashell indicates the height cutoff of 42 inches.

"The whole concept of the play land is to have not only the play elements themselves but a degree of a learning concept .... with letters and numbers," Goudge said.

Goudge pioneered the development of the play land after Lexington Realty outlined its goals for the mall. The company already was familiar with Kiddy Zones at play lands constructed in its malls in Alexandria, Minn., and Watertown, S.D., as well as those in Pennsylvania. Such areas are free and open to families, but supervision is required.

"Oftentimes, the family comes in as a whole," Goudge said. "The mother may say, 'I would like to dash over to these stores and I'll be back,' and then she returns and then the father says, 'I'm going to dash over here,' so they're really able to give the children something to occupy themselves with while they're each doing their shopping."

Goudge's comments came Monday afternoon as she was preparing to vacate the office she's occupied for nearly eight years as mall manager.

"I have tried from the very beginning to really be a beacon for the community, whether I would partner with the United Way or the community food shelf ... we've always tried to really open the doors up to the community," she said. "It gives them a good large audience and a base to promote themselves."

Goude has been hired as the executive director of VisitBemidji, a position she will begin on Monday.

"We love Susan. Susan is an absolute delight and a highly qualified person," Retkinski said. "We are going to miss her dearly. ... She has been a tremendous asset to the mall and she will be very hard to replace."

The search to fill her position is ongoing. He encouraged anyone interested to email a cover letter and resume to

What about Kmart space?

Paul Bunyan Mall, according to the Lexington Realty website, was built in 1978 and renovated in 1998. It now features two anchor tenants: Herberger's and JCPenney but there is a 96,100-square-foot space for a third anchor, a space left vacant since late 2012 when Kmart closed after 35 years.

Retkinski said Lexington realty is "working diligently" with a few potential tenants to fill that space.

"We're very, very close to solving our challenge" there, he said.

Retkinski said the company has a good track record of filling its properties. The company announced in February that its Viking Plaza in Alexandria had obtained a 100 percent occupancy rate.

"The city of Bemidji is tremendously inviting. It's a great place to do business," Retkinski said. "Once we get the right tenant mix, we're going to be able to capitalize on that. It's a great place to be."