The first shovelful of dirt was turned on Crossroads Center 50 years ago this September.
Area residents had their doubts when work began in the huge peat bog where slough grass and cattails thrived. The location between St. Cloud and Waite Park was ideal, but the site was considered “no man’s land” and “unbuildable.” The consensus was that no one would be able to build even a small structure on it.
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Land developers had been eyeing the property since the mid-1950s. First, it was going to be a food store. But years passed, and nothing was done. Later, another developer looked at it for a possible retail complex. Again, nothing.
Rumors ramped up in the early 1960s. More developers came, but nothing would be built. All of that would change in the spring of 1964.
An investigation by a Minneapolis development firm called Crossroads Center began. Soil samples proved that a large shopping center could be built. However, 300,000 cubic yards of peat would have to be replaced.
Workers from Landwehr Construction began excavation in September. Soon, the Fischer family who lived across U.S. Highway 52, now known as Division Street, watched as truckloads of crushed granite were hauled from nearby quarries to the 40-acre site and dumped into the swamp.
Sears would be the first retail store announced as part of the new enterprise which developers said would include “two large department stores, an 18,000-square-foot supermarket, a drug store, 25,000-square-foot variety store, and men’s, women’s and children’s apparel stores.” Off-street parking would be provided for more than 3,000 cars and the enclosed mall would be “air-conditioned and heated for a uniform 72-degree year-round temperature.”
However, once construction began, the viability of the center was questioned: Were the retail spaces too far apart? Was the shopping center too far from downtown? How would the developers ever fill the retail spaces? And who would shop there?
By February 1965, six major retailers were secured, including the other anchor store, J.C. Penney Co. The retail space would be nearly five times as large as the company’s store on St. Germain Street, which would close once the new store opened. Sears also would close its downtown location.
At the same time, then-St. Cloud Mayor Ed Henry and the council were criticized for entering into a 10-year agreement with the developers to provide city water and sewer to the shopping center.
He issued a statement: “It should be clearly pointed out to St. Cloud citizens that the Crossroads Shopping Center would have gone in with or without city water and sewer. ... The feeling of the council is that tying them to us with water and sewer is by no means a certain way to get them to annex later on; but that it is a better way than fighting them so that eventually they are completely independent of St. Cloud and will act to incorporate themselves. If the latter happens, St. Cloud loses them forever.”
To Henry, it was obvious. Crossroads’ developers were depending on the city’s population for its revenue, but wanted to avoid municipal taxes. Henry and his staff would work behind the scenes to research the law and collect data, being careful not to tip off the city of Waite Park or Crossroads officials.
In December 1967, the city filed its annexation petition, which set off a three-year legal battle.
Crossroads Shopping Center officially opened on April 20, 1966, as the third-largest enclosed mall in the state. Only Southdale in Edina and Apache Plaza in St. Anthony were larger. There were 25 stores, and the mall area included “live trees and shrubs, spraying water fountains, lockers, and even public restrooms.”
Festivities lasted four days and included special guest appearances by Twin Cities television personalities Betty Douglass from “Romper Room,” Dave Lee from “Popeye and Pete,” and Casey Jones and his pal Roundhouse from “Lunch with Casey.” Clancy the Cop and Nurse Carmen were also on hand.
“When it opened, I would label it a small-town shopping center,” said Don Bitzan, owner of D.J. Bitzan Jewelers, in a 1991 interview. “I don’t think anyone thought it would be what it has become; no one could have had any idea.”
Sources: Times archives, Stearns County History Museum.