Before it set its sights on West Des Moines, General Growth Properties Inc. had considered Ames as the location for its next big regional mall, on the heels of its success with its huge Coral Ridge Mall development in Coralville.

But the developer passed on Ames, deciding instead that it would build Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines. Ames, the company decided, was too far north of the Greater Des Moines population center.      Now, Wolford Development Options Inc., the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based developer that wants to build a regional mall northeast of Ames is facing opposition from 1000 Friends of Iowa. The anti-urban-sprawl group is distributing hundreds of "Grow Smart, Stop the Mall" signs in opposition to the proposed development for the Interstate 35/13th Street interchange, which with an adjoining big-box center would create about 1.7 million square feet of additional retail space.

The continued pace of development raises the question of just how much more retail space the state can sustain. While developers say the big projects bring in new retailers, thus creating new business, critics say the state has already reached the point of being over-malled.

"Retail growth is really good if you're really growing it," said LaVon Griffieon, 1000 Friends' president. "But if you're just moving things around to get it a little closer to the interstate, that devastates existing businesses."

Coral Ridge, which became Iowa's largest mall at 1.2 million square feet when it opened in July 1998, will be surpassed next year by the 2 million-square-foot Jordan Creek as the largest mall in the state.

Now under construction on 200 acres, Jordan Creek will feature two levels of upscale shops, and be anchored by Younkers, Dillard's and Scheel's All Sports. Among the other planned features are an 18-screen movie theater, an ice rink, a 900-seat food court, a man-made lake, an amphitheater, bike paths and pedestrian walkways.

Jordan Creek is attracting a new level of retailer that wouldn't have considered Iowa before, said Ron DenAdel, vice president of development for General Growth.

"We've had to do a lot of convincing to have these retailers consider this market," he said. "But when we've been able to show them the new growth, the new jobs, and they see the plan for the unique design and we share the tenant list, it's created a lot of excitement in the industry.

"The other fact is there aren't a lot of new centers being developed, so successful retailers are taking a hard look at Jordan Creek," he said.

Existing retailers, however, in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor have been hurt by Coral Ridge, and Greater Des Moines malls will feel similar pain from Jordan Creek, said Ken Stone, a professor of economics at Iowa State University who tracks retail trends.

After Coral Ridge's opening, retailers in a 17-county area lost an estimated $240 million in annual sales to the new mall, according to an analysis by Stone. He presented a similar study last year to the Ames City Council that estimated existing Ames businesses would lose $35 million in annual sales if the proposed mall opens there.

Coral Ridge hurt the Westdale Mall on Cedar Rapids' southwest side, but didn't have a negative impact on Lindale Mall, said Mark Seckman, president of Priority One, the economic development division of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Lindale is a stronger mall; they have put significant money into updating the mall, and also it's on the northeast quadrant of town, which is a farther drive from Coral Ridge," Seckman said. "Westdale Mall has also not put money into its mall."

As an economic development organization, Priority One promotes Coral Ridge as an overall positive for the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area, he said. Similarly, while Jordan Creek may hurt some existing malls, it will create an overall benefit for Greater Des Moines, he said.

That's not how Stone sees it.

"Throughout most of Iowa, it's a zero-sum game," he said. "If Jordan Creek does $300 million in business, it will hurt someone else to that amount. If developers tell you it's won't, that's a bunch of B.S."

Merle Hay and Southridge malls will be hurt the most by Jordan Creek, Stone said.

"I think Valley West will hang in there," he said. "They've done a good job of keeping up and have good anchors. The traffic situation is the worst aspect for them. There will be some specialty stores that will be hurt as well."

DenAdel said Jordan Creek will attract business from throughout the state and reduce leakage of customers traveling to Minneapolis, Chicago or St. Louis for upscale shopping.

"Clearly, there will be some duplication because retailers want to be at the best project," he said. "But the project is built on bringing what's not in the market here. I think from the tenants that have been announced thus far, it's clear we're enjoying a lot of leasing success here."

Additionally, some of the premier stores that are coming to Jordan Creek will also locate in Coral Ridge, now that they have a presence in Iowa, DenAdel said.

"Some of the tenants will probably just have one store with us, but some may look at additional outlets in the state as well," he said.

Trying to build a project as large as Jordan Creek in Ames would not have worked, DenAdel said.

"When we opened Coral Ridge, it was such a success that I talked to the city of Ames and looked at potential sites to try to basically mirror what we had done in Coralville," he said. "But when we looked at the market, it was clear to us where Coral Ridge was just a bull's-eye; Ames was on the fringe of the market. ... It was not going to be as effective as the draw we could have at the intersection of I-35 and I-80. ... It would have been a relocation of North Grand, plus (more)."

In Ames, Stone said, the fight will be over the three existing department stores that now anchor North Grand Mall.

"If North Grand can get them to sign a long-term agreement, that may keep the new mall from coming in."

1000 Friends opposes the proposed Ames mall because it's poorly planned, organizers said. Wolford Development, is seeking a change to the city's land-use plan to locate near the 13th Street interchange rather than the designated regional commercial space at I-35 and Highway 30.

"The city of Ames spent over $100,000 to develop the present land-use plan they have," Griffieon said. "The reason they have a plan is to have certain guidelines. You don't amend your plan every time you have a developer saying they'll bring business to town.

The smaller businesses would follow wherever the large anchors go, and that would devastate [North Grand]." the mall."

A mall on the east side of I-35 would also be inaccessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, and the city would incur extra costs to extend bus service to the outskirts of town, she said. The group is also concerned about the aesthetic and environmental impact to nearby marshland.

1000 Friends, whose lawsuit against the city of West Des Moines and the U.S. Department of Transportation over environmental impact studies helped delay the Jordan Creek development for a year, doesn't plan to file suit to block the Ames mall, Griffieon said.

"This is all grass-roots organizing," Griffieon said. "It's our mission to educate Iowans about land-use decisions. We go by the theory that you don't need a lawyer, that citizens voice their opinions and make local representatives accountable."

TO LEASE OR NOT TO LEASE

Jordan Creek Town Center has prospects to fill all of its space, but may reserve some of it through its opening, says the executive in charge of the project.

"It's a decision on whether we open 100 percent leased, or leave some space open for retailers who may want to take a hard look at this market," said Ron DenAdel, vice president of development for General Growth Properties Inc. "The demand is there; it's a question of merchandising."

General Growth opened its last three major centers, including Coral Ridge Mall, fully leased, only to have "some very desirable retailers approach us and we had no space," he said.

The fact that the mall has so far secured just two anchor department stores is not a detriment, DenAdel said.

"The success is not whether we have two, four or five department stores; it's who we have," he said. "We have a third department store pad on our plan. If we have the right addition, we have space for another department store. We're not going to put just anybody there to say we have three department stores; that's not important."