New Jersey’s biggest and most expensive retail/recreation development has been two decades in the making, next to the N.J. Turnpike in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, Bergen County.
The American Dream Mall has 3 million square feet of retail space, a Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park, a vast indoor DreamWorks Water Park and a 16-story indoor ski slope. Nearby are MetLife Stadium, home for the New York Giants and New York Jets, and Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment.
Other developers began the project under the name Xanadu. In 2011 it was acquired and reimagined by a Canadian mall and entertainment conglomerate that owns and operates the two biggest malls in North America — West Edmonton in Alberta and Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Developing any business in New Jersey is a challenge, so there’s no surprise that it took eight years to bring the American Dream Mall to fruition. It finally opened in October 2019, with parts left to finish in the year ahead.
The following March, however, brought the COVID pandemic, shutting the mall along with countless New Jersey retailers also deemed nonessential businesses. That cut off its revenue and the international visitors to it and nearby New York City that were expected to provide 20% of mall business.
American Dream was allowed to partially open in October 2020. By this past summer, the mall said that weekend visitors were averaging 75,000 — a testament perhaps to its perseverance and appeal. The original, pre-pandemic goal was 45 million visitors a year.
Last month, the last major section of the mall opened, a luxury shopping wing featuring stores such as Dolce & Gabbana and Saks Fifth Avenue, exotic fish ponds and 16-foot sculptures. The operators expect to have 85% of the mall’s total retail space leased by year’s end. The final piece to the complex will be adjacent hotels.
Many regular shopping malls have lost some of their traditional anchors that they counted on to drive traffic, such as the departure of Sears and J.C. Penney from the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing. In areas where the local economy has declined, malls have closed.
American Dream aims to be an East Coast destination, a recreational shopping concentration of extraordinary magnitude drawing visitors from other states and nations. That has worked for the conglomerate elsewhere and perhaps it will in the Meadowlands.
Visitors from elsewhere with money to spend could make American Dream a success, add to the New Jersey economy and help justify (in some minds anyway) state government’s massive support for the development over the years. The N.J. Economic Development Authority provided $350 million in direct subsidies, $100 million in road improvements and hundreds of millions more in financing.
New Jersey must subsidize businesses because it has long had the worst business tax climate in the nation. Next time some South Jersey company manages to get a little benefit from the necessary evil of state subsidies, remember the $1.2 billion given to this risky venture up north.