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Can an indoor ski slope draw people to a New Jersey mega-mall?

Big Snow, in North Jersey's new American Dream Mall, is North America's only indoor ski slope.

Snowboarders, Brandon Tompkins , left, and Donald Wright, take the escalators to the indoor ski lodge Big Snow inside the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, N.J.
Snowboarders, Brandon Tompkins , left, and Donald Wright, take the escalators to the indoor ski lodge Big Snow inside the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, N.J.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There are no mountains in this Bergen County borough. The highest natural point is three feet above sea level. Not quite Tahoe or Telluride, or even the Poconos.

None of those skiing destinations, or any other resort town in all of North America, for that matter, can lay claim to the surreal man-made sight that’s recently risen there, right by the turnpike, across from where the New York Giants play football.

“I’m in a ski slope in a mall in New Jersey,” a man told someone on the other end of his phone Monday morning.

As he spoke, his breath unfurled in the 28-degree weather. In a mall. In New Jersey.

Big Snow, which opened earlier this month, features a 160-foot slope and a 26-degree incline. Snow is everywhere. At the bottom of the hill, there’s a lodge facade. Restaurants will take its place in the future. The park offers lessons for both skiing and snowboarding, rentals, a ski lift, even top-40 hits piped in along with the fresh snow it produces there.

Customers enter Big Snow through its retail store, which looks like a typical clothing store — think Hollister or Zumiez. But a window in the rear of the store overlooks a winter wonderland, particularly the small training hill and the children and first-time skiers sliding around on it like Bambi on ice.

“The snow is pretty good,” said Donald Wright, of Brewster, N.Y., as he stood by an escalator with his snowboard in what could be your average mall.

But this mall — the long-awaited $5 billion American Dream Mall — was built to crush average malls, and the ski slope is just one part of a mind-boggling whole. Hundreds of people were there by noon Monday, though just two of the 350 retailers appeared to be open. The mall is slated to be finished in 2020, and the sound of power drills and saws was audible throughout its bright white corridors.

What’s bringing people there now is the ski slope, a separate ice rink, and the Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor theme park in North America. Another heavy-hitter in the American Dream lineup, the cavernous DreamWorks Water Park, was set to open last month but was delayed. A new date has not been announced.

“This is just amazing,” said Kenneth Dutton, 40, of Northeast Philly. “There will be something for everybody in here.”

Dutton said he brought his family to North Jersey “for a few days” to visit the place, and that’s exactly what the builders of American Dream and other new retail centers in America are hoping for.

After many stops and starts over the last two decades, American Dream, first envisioned as Meadowlands Xanadu, began to gain momentum in 2011 when Edmonton, Canada-based development and finance conglomerate Triple Five Group got involved. Triple Five is used to cranking out enormous venues that boggle the mind. The company operates Minnesota’s Mall of America, one of the largest in the country, and the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, which is the largest in North America. Both of those malls have 75% retail and 25% entertainment.

American Dream, all told, will be 55% entertainment and 45% retail, a “far cry from the 80% retail found in malls 20 years ago,” as one construction news site noted.

Back then, though, the entertainment was a merry-go-round or miniature train for the kids, arcades for the teens. Movie theaters came, left, and — as witnessed in Philadelphia’s recently revamped Fashion District — are coming back again. Malls of the past had more fountains and sculptures. The Cherry Hill Mall, one of the nation’s first, had an aviary.

When it opened in 1989, what was then the Franklin Mills mall in Northeast Philly, known today as Philadelphia Mills, boasted a 125,000-square-foot amusement area known as the 49th Street Galleria. That entertainment area struggled with financial issues from the beginning, and today is a Burlington store.

“It was one of the biggest attractions in Pennsylvania for many years,” said Steven Gartner, an executive vice president with the CBRE real estate group in Philadelphia.

American Dream’s price tag has raised concerns since it was first conceived in 1996. New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, according to NJ Advance Media, approved up to $390 million in state tax incentives for American Dream. In 2016, critics told The Inquirer that so much money and tax exemptions being channeled into a “nonessential” project could set bad precedents.

Gartner said American Dream is one of the few new malls opened in the last decade. And while Franklin Mills was once a daylong destination, American Dream could truly emerge as a mini-vacation option for families, he said. He likened the new mall to a cruise ship.

“Much of mall shopping has become shorter stays or a pointed, direct trip to one store. This is very much a regional destination mall. What I see there is people will stay for long blocks of time,” he said. “The world keeps producing kids, and parents are always looking for new things to do. You can only see Frozen 2 so many times.”

Patty Park, of Palisades Park, N.J., didn’t plan to stay at Big Snow too long Monday. She was nearly frozen— no hat on and shivering in the snow while her children, Isaiah and Evelyn, crisscrossed the slope on skis.

“I live 10 minutes from here and this has been a long time coming,” Park said. “Now I know where to bring people when they come visit.”

At Big Snow, it pays to purchase tickets and time slots ahead of time, online. Experienced skiers or snowboarders with their own gear can get two hours of slope access for $29.99 online and $34.99 in person. Packages with gear rental and access to the learning slopes and instructors begin at $49 online and $69 in person. Multiday passes are available, too.

At Mountain Creek, an outdoor ski resort 45 miles northwest of the mall in Vernon, N.J., ticket prices begin at $30 and are also higher in person. Snowboard or ski rentals there are $50. While Big Snow’s slope is considered “intermediate,” Mountain Creek and most others have much higher hills.

With no rain, no warm afternoons, no outside elements at all, Big Snow has specific perks one could find only at indoor resorts in Dubai and China. Trish McLeod, a marketer for Big Snow, grew up snowboarding on Mountain Creek. She was surprised on her first indoor run.

“We don’t really get ice here,” she said. “The snow is so much better than you think it would be.”

No more than 500 skiers and snowboarders will be allowed in Big Snow at any given time, but developers are betting on them sticking around when their day is done.