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by Rosemary Feitelberg

Malls are trying to become about more than just shopping.

With many malls fighting for survival and mall vacancy rates approaching 10 percent, property owners are trying to woo shoppers with lures such as a roller coaster riding contest, a film festival, fashion shows, cupcakes and even an exhibition of Oscar statuettes.

This month’s news the U.S.’ second largest mall owner, General Growth Properties Inc., has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection only magnified worries that more malls could become hallowed halls. Mall-going or grazing, as the case may be, has long been a rite of passage for teenagers and adults alike, but now growing concerns about the potential loss of this slice of Americana has developers taking the offensive by cooking up offbeat reasons to hit the mall. Concerts, classes and other events boost traffic and help mall retailers stand out in challenging times. Going forward, more U.S. malls may also borrow from their Australian counterparts and attach grocery stores.

“What we provide today is a much different experience than was available years ago,” said William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc. “There is a growing marriage of food and other concepts that make the mall experience more fascinating and unique.”

And malls are becoming more aggressive at mounting such activities, as well as communicating them. The Macerich Co., one of the nation’s largest mall and shopping center owners with 70 sites, fastens consumer ties through Twitter and Facebook. Earlier this month, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., hosted “Coast for a Cruise,” a contest to see who could ride its SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge roller coaster the longest. The two winners managed 2,507 times in nine days, much to the delight of their ever-changing audience. Others poured into the MOA’s on-site amusement park April 15 to watch 15 couples wed on another roller coaster.

The Newport Beach Film Festival is under way at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif. And the Simon Property Group, the country’s largest mall developer, is in the midst of staging Simon Fashion Now, runway shows and makeup demos, in five cities. Every item can be bought after the show, and all price points are represented.

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