North Pier Make-Over: Come Shop With Oggie

Ron Haskell has hi s work cut out for him. He hopes to transform North Pier from a languishing, poorly positioned multipurpose mall into a flourishing offbeat shopping and entertainment mecca.

Haskell’s bosses at the Highland Park-based Moore & South, which now manages the property, are spending millions of dollars to make and advertise substantial changes at the pier. In the works are more game rooms, new restaurants, museums, and unusual retail outlets along with entertainment like roaming jugglers, mimes, balloon artists, clowns, and special family-oriented festivals on weekends. A new look has also been planned for the mall–now rechristened North Pier Festival Market–to be unveiled later this year. To some observers, the revamping is a sign that all was not well at North Pier. “The ownership must not have been happy with the status quo,” suggests restaurateur Dan Rosenthal, who with former partner Cathy Newton opened the Old Carolina Crab House at the pier four years ago.

“We’ll know whether it’s all working for us at North Pier in around 18 to 24 months,” maintains Haskell, an upbeat guy who includes among his previous jobs a mostly unsuccessful attempt to work the same magic at an Indiana property called Union Station, which Moore & South used to manage. The former rail depot in downtown Indianapolis reopened several years ago as an entertainment and shopping mall, but the locals refused to venture downtown to use it. “It was great when there was a big sporting event or a convention in town,” adds Haskell, who is more hopeful that he can make North Pier work.

Moore & South took control of North Pier last January. The first signs of change came in April when the pier’s new mascot, Oggie the Slipasouros, was hatched. Haskell said the idea came out of a marketing meeting in which someone posed the fictional scenario of dredging the Ogden Slip, adjacent to North Pier, and finding a dinosaur egg. An Oggie costume was created and the dinosaur was officially born last April 3. “He will serve as our representative at different events,” explains Haskell. The questionable wisdom of using an extinct animal as a mall mascot has not gone unmentioned by mall observers.

But others believe that Moore & South’s changes at the mall are coming none too soon. John Buchanan, the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises managing partner in charge of the Original A- 1, remembers his sad vision of the mall when he opened the restaurant in late 1990. Though his place was packed with holiday parties at the time, Buchanan walked out into the mall itself and found it nearly empty. “It was just before Christmas, and no one was there,” says Buchanan. “It was clear this mall did not have a presence as a shopping center.” Buchanan is all for the entertainment angle that Moore & South is pushing. He says, “The previous management didn’t understand the mall.”

Not all current North Pier tenants have warmed to Oggie or the other changes Haskell has instituted. Doubleday Bookshop, part of a chain based in New York, is perhaps the only retailer with a national presence left at North Pier, but it plans to leave the mall at the end of this month, though Haskell says he hasn’t given up on persuading the company any to stay.’ Doubleday management apparently believes North Pier’s new positioning isn’t going to make it a destination for serious book shoppers. “The mall now is appealing to a different clientele than it was when Doubleday moved in,” notes one source close to Doubleday, which will continue to operate stores in the suburban Woodfield and Northbrook malls. Even Haskell admits that North Pier is moving away from any pretensions of being another Water Tower Place or 900 N. Michigan. He says, “We never could compete with the shopping opportunities on North Michigan Avenue.”

Navy Pier, which is scheduled to reopen sometime in 1995, is likely to overshadow neighboring North Pier, but Haskell is optimistic, saying he “can’t wait” for the Navy Pier redevelopment to be completed. “I think it will attract more people off of Michigan Avenue,” explains Haskell, “and the synergy will be great for us.” In the meantime, Haskell needs to find a more stable tenant base for the mall. Retail shops of all types have come and gone with great regularity in years past, making it hard for shoppers to define North Pier’s image. “We want to position ourselves as an unusual place to shop,” notes Haskell, “not necessarily the first place you would go to shop.”

Haskell also intends to increase customer flow by concentrating on luring convention and tourist traffic as well as locals looking for entertainment. The biggest challenge will be drawing crowds in the cold winter months when North Pier’s waterfront appeal is considerably diminished. “We can’t sit idly by and assume you can’t do business in the winter,” says Haskell, though he would not reveal what he is planning to enhance the mall’s wintertime allure.

An Art Dealer Who Can’t Complain

River North art dealers are still struggling to regain the momentum their business enjoyed in the 1980s. But momentum hasn’t been a problem for Jay Fahn, a dealer in Canadian Eskimo and Indian art who this weekend unveils a new Orca Aart Gallery at 300 W. Grand that is double his former space in the same building. Fahn can safely lay claim to being the city’s chief purveyor of Eskimo lithographs, jewelry, totem poles, and carvings–some of which can sell for as much as $18,000. A former Citibank executive overseas and now a loan honcho with Hyde Park Bank, Fahn got hooked on Eskimo art while a college student. He has gone on to become an expert on Canadian Eskimos and their art after many visits to the Northwest Territories above the Arctic Circle. Fahn says his gallery has thrived in part because it does not cater to the same clientele drawn to River North galleries. He says, “We attract a different kind of customer that is interested in the Eskimo culture reflected in the art.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.