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So Far Behind I Think I’m First (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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Days before the 2000 presidential election, I appeared as a panelist on “Arkansas Week,” that Friday night staple of Arkansas PBS, and moderator Steve Barnes asked us to predict the outcome of what all the polls were showing to be an exceptionally tight race. The other panelists selected either George W. Bush or Al Gore, but I played it safe. All I was sure of, I said with the confidence of youth, was that the margin would not be nearly as close as the polls were suggesting.

As it turned out, I was the only panelist who was completely wrong. Gore, then President Clinton’s vice president, received the most votes, but Bush was ultimately the winner. And the margin was 0.53%; only two presidential elections (1880 and 1960) have been closer.

It was a harmless if humiliating exercise in prognostication, but it illustrates just how bad my predictive skills are. I’m almost always wrong. Since then I have avoided public predictions and tried to stick with observing what has actually happened.

Every once in a while, however, something that I thought would happen actually does happen. Reading Assistant Editor Kyle Massey’s story last week on ideas for repurposing shopping malls reminded me of a column I wrote a long time ago — almost as long ago as that bad presidential prediction. I dug around in our online archive and found a column from April 2004, when “lifestyle centers” were the hot retail trend.

“Malls are to my generation what Main Street was to our parents, and I feel a little pang of regret over what seems to be the passing of a little slice of American culture — even though I’m as guilty as anyone of shunning the inconvenience of the mall,” I wrote more than 16 years ago.

And then I started musing about the future of those massive monuments to retail therapy. “Will we have study after study to try to come up with some way to reinvigorate the malls? Will nonprofit groups devoted to the redevelopment of our malls spring up all over the state and have annual conventions? If we bulldoze the old mall sites and replace them with lifestyle centers, will our great-grandchildren scold us for our shortsighted disregard for the historic value of the quintessential example of 20th century American architecture?”

While I haven’t heard of any mall preservation missions comparable to Main Street Arkansas, it seems repurposing malls as mixed-use space — including residential and office use — is the current idea for repurposing the shopping meccas I grew up in. And I was only a decade and a half early!

But, seriously, folks, I do hope for some productive, profitable use for those cavernous cathedrals of American consumerism. They are invariably well located since so much of urban and suburban life grew up around them over the past 50 years.

I live near McCain Mall, where I and so many of my teenage contemporaries got our first workforce experiences back in the 1970s. The addition of the Regal Theater in 2012 and the subsequent addition of new restaurants inside and outside the mall — Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Purple Cow, Tacos 4 Life and others — have made it more of a destination for me than it had been in years.

I also predicted that online banking would replace brick-and-mortar bank branches. That was about 20 years ago, and I had decided that I was completely wrong about that. This pandemic makes me think I was merely way ahead of my time.

The only political prediction I have been making in recent years is this: As soon as a Democrat is back in the White House — getting fewer votes, as Bush and President Trump did, cannot be a winning strategy for the GOP forever — Republicans will instantly transform into hair-on-fire deficit hawks.

The fact that Republicans in Congress are already starting that pivot suggests that they agree with the polls that favor Joe Biden. But a pandemic that has resulted in close to 65 million unemployment claims this year is a curious time to rediscover the virtue of thrift.

I don’t usually use this space to try to sell anything, but it seems a good time to mention that an unlimited subscription to Arkansas Business’ online archives, with articles dating back to 1994, costs $19.99 a year. What a bargain. Just use the search feature, and when you try to open a story that’s more than two weeks old, you’ll get a chance to subscribe.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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