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Denogean: Ross store could revive life of El Con

Louis Panos' Indian Arts & Crafts store at El Con Mall will be replaced by a Ross store. "I'm too old, so I decided to close it," he said of his business, open since 1966.

Louis Panos' Indian Arts & Crafts store at El Con Mall will be replaced by a Ross store. "I'm too old, so I decided to close it," he said of his business, open since 1966.

Bittersweet news is coming out of El Con Mall. A Ross clothing store is tentatively planned for the west wing of El Con in what could be a step in the repositioning of Tucson’s most lackluster mall as a major open-air marketplace.

But clearing the way for Ross is leading to the loss of the mall’s second-oldest tenant, the Indian Arts &Crafts Store, owned by Louis Panos, better known to longtime customers and employees as “Uncle Louie.”

Panos will close shop for good June 12.

Lane Oden, El Con’s lawyer for land use, said the lease is still being negotiated, but development plans for a Ross east of Robinsons-May have been submitted to the city.

It’s hoped Ross will attract smaller tenants as part of a vision to create a retail center smaller than but similar to the Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, he said.

Desert Ridge is a new incarnation of the mall that some call “lifestyle centers.” Such centers combine major retailers with specialty stores, restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues in an open setting, designed around pedestrian streets and plazas, to invoke the feel of a bustling urban village.

El Con’s plan to construct a 30,000-square-foot Ross requires the demolition of stores on the south side of the west wing from Robinsons-May, including the Indian Arts & Crafts store just east of it, to the main mall entrance.

Panos said El Con management has always dealt fairly with him and offered him another location in the mall.

Panos agreed but later changed his mind when he thought about trying to conduct business across from the dust, fences and heavy machinery that are parts of a construction site.

“If we go to the other side, there might not be any business,” he said. “I’m too old, so I decided to close it.”

It’s truly the end of an era.

For nearly as long as El Con Mall has been standing, Panos has had an Indian jewelry and art store there.

The first opened in 1966. At one time, Panos owned or co-owned four Native American goods stores in El Con, along with one downtown, and made “big money, big money.”

Those who passed through their doors could expect to find not only beautiful handmade jewelry and colorful kachina dolls, but also a warm welcome that might include offers of baklava and a taste of the Greek brandy Metaxa.

If the prices weren’t to your liking, Uncle Louie could be counted on to “give you a good price” or “make you a deal.”

Panos said he’s not sad, but he’ll miss the store.

“I’ve been here all of these years,” Panos said in the Greek accent that flavors his speech more than 50 years after he immigrated to the U.S. “I’ve never missed to come here, seven days a week, except when I’m out of town.

“I make a good living in the mall. We make good money all these years, but now it is no more.”

He will miss his employees: Milli Clark, Gloria Barbea and Pam Amesbury.

Barbea and Clark joked last week that Uncle Louie has spoiled them for work elsewhere. He provides lunch for them every day and gives them jewelry on their birthdays.

Indian art lovers will still be able to find Panos. He’s a partner with his nephew in the Rio Grande Trading Co. store at Tucson Mall. Once the El Con store closes, he’ll spend a few hours daily at Rio Grande.

If all goes as planned for El Con, Ross will open next year. It will joint Target, Home Depot, JC Penney and Robinsons-May as the mall’s major retailers.

A long-awaited In-N-Out Burger is expected to open at the end of August, joining Krispy Kreme and Claim Jumper on the east side of the mall property.

A commercial pad under construction west of Randolph Way will house a Starbucks, to open in November, and other small retailers. SpaOne planned to go on the pad but couldn’t agree on lease terms.

For the first time in years, the outlook for El Con seems bright.

Of course, skepticism is natural, given the history of the mall.

Various plans over the decades for the rejuvenation of El Con have been scrapped before fruition.

Most recently, El Con management put out a master plan five years ago for the redevelopment as an “urban town center,” with services, restaurants, art galleries, specialty shops, gourmet food stores and lush garden areas for relaxing in between shops.

Today, the mall interior houses about a dozen merchants. The food court is empty. Home Depot and Target don’t even have entrances to the mall.

But if the Ross entry should mark a real turnaround, guess who might be back?

“If they build more stores,” Panos said, “maybe I’ll come back to open a small store.”

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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