Quick trip finds a different world at Park Meadows

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Sometimes, when life deals you a few hours of unexpected free time, you simply have to take advantage.

That’s what happened to me last weekend, after driving to Denver to pick up my wife at the airport. (Yes, she flew out of there, not Colorado Springs, because this trip was paid for with airline miles, not dollars. And that was the only realistic option.)

Her return flight was delayed two hours by severe thunderstorms in Michigan. So that left me with lots of time to kill — and no agenda.

So I decided to do what thousands of other people likely were doing. I would go to Park Meadows, the behemoth shopping mecca at the junction of Interstate 25 and C-470 on the south side of Denver’s metro area.

It had been several years since my last visit to Park Meadows, which feels enough self-confidence to label itself as “Colorado’s only retail resort.” Of course, after spending the past year at the Business Journal, that had changed the way I would view the mega-mall.

So I exited off I-25, fully realizing this was not an original idea. The only choice was to stay as patient as possible, even during an endless four-minute wait just to turn left from County Line Road into the Park Meadows perimeter. This was a chance to see what it’s truly like on a chaotic day inside Colorado’s hottest retail scene, with more than 1.5 million square feet of business space, 160 stores and 7,000 parking spaces.

I wondered whether I might encounter lots of acquaintances, or at least vehicles, from the Colorado Springs area. After all, Park Meadows sits only 31 miles from the top of Monument Hill, so most Springs-area residents can make it there in less than an hour.

But during this stealth mission, surprisingly, I didn’t see a single familiar face from El Paso County — or any cars clearly from our market. (For comparison, it’s never hard to find many people I know at sporting events or concerts in Denver.)

Park Meadows doesn’t share that level of customer statistics, but my unscientific conclusion would be that it doesn’t base its success on how many shoppers make the drive from Colorado Springs. In the demographics that Park Meadows does make available, those numbers only break down groups living in a radius of three, five and seven miles from the mall.

I spent the next few hours slowly exploring the entire two levels, gawking at a lot of stores that you wouldn’t expect to find in Colorado Springs — and others that we do have, just smaller.

There’s Nordstrom, of course, as well as other larger retailers such as Dillard’s, Macy’s, JC Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods. But one couldn’t help but be fascinated by the crowds at the LEGO Store, Coach, A|X Armani Exchange, Crate & Barrel, Tommy Bahama, Apple, Microsoft, American Girl, John Atencio, Abercrombie & Fitch, Pottery Barn, the Disney Store and many more.

It was actually intimidating, standing at the door of Apple and seeing at least a dozen young tech-savvy men in matching golf shirts, waiting to pounce on the next customer. As busy as Apple was, that’s how staffed-up it was. (To be fair, Microsoft’s atmosphere looked comparable.)

I decided to put off checking out iPads for another day, back in Colorado Springs.

You can’t go to Park Meadows without checking out the “dining hall,” as it’s called, where the choices run from Asian to Creole, sandwiches to pretzels and juices, with enough free samples to tide you over to the next meal. But then you look elsewhere and see the mall’s 14 restaurants, such as the Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang’s and the Yard House, all doing well even in mid-afternoon.

Obviously, the Denver economy is red-hot compared to ours. But it helps to observe the Springs’ competition in person. The only question was whether I would contribute on this visit.

My main need was pants for work, with my size and preference sometimes hard to find. Fortunately for me, Cynthia in the Dillard’s men’s department quickly turned this stranger into a willing customer, with a demeanor so pleasant that I thought I was in a small town. And when the register didn’t produce the right sales price, she caught the mistake immediately and fixed it.

Finally, after enough walking to easily equal 18 holes of golf, it was time to head for the airport. I couldn’t help but think I might return more often, if only for the endless people-watching. Just maybe not on a Saturday afternoon.

We still do 99 percent of our shopping in the Springs, and that won’t change. But when you have one of America’s most impressive malls that close, there’s no reason to ignore it.