Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A Twin Cities mall invited people and pets to walk indoors each weekend—but the event’s popularity was also its undoing.

In last year’s brutal winter in Minnesota, Elisabeth Ostrander was watching the local news when someone on screen said they wished they had a place to walk their dog indoors. Ostrander was then the senior marketing manager for the Rosedale Center, a typical suburban shopping mall located in Roseville, about 11 miles north of Minneapolis. “So I thought, ‘Why couldn’t they walk at Rosedale before the mall opens?’” she recalls.

The next Monday, she floated the idea past her general manager. By the following Sunday, the mall opened its doors to the Twin Cities’ four-legged friends, inviting them to take a stroll. With just a few posts on social media and a partnership with Sidewalk Dog, a dog-friendly guide to Minnesota, it took off from there.

“That first weekend there were probably 300 dogs,” Ostrander says. “The area has a huge dog community, and it spread like wildfire.” With stores closed and escalators stopped, the two-story shopping center quickly teemed with dogs and their people, flowing along the perimeter of the mall like the classic image of early-morning mall walkers. What was intended to be a once-a-month winter event turned into a year-round weekly walking bonanza, save for the holiday season, when dog-walking was paused for a few weeks to accommodate extended shopping hours.

But as any dog owner knows, even one pooch can be a handful. So you might understand what happened when hundreds came into the same place at the same time in a space that wasn’t designed for dogs. Call it the tragedy of the canines: The janitorial team couldn’t keep pace with the mess that grew along with the event’s popularity. After about a year of providing free, open space for people and their dogs to get some exercise, the mall called it quits on Sunday.

“It has gotten so successful that we had to cancel it, because we couldn’t keep up with it,” says Lisa Crain, the mall’s general manager.

Dogs sit in front of a wall at the Rosedale Center.
(Courtesy of Rosedale Center)

While Rosedale stands apart for its event-based approach, there are several shopping centers across the U.S. that allow dogs. The majority are outdoors, and many require pups to be in a bag or stroller when they enter stores, making it hard for people with larger breeds to participate. Then there are spaces like The Shops at North Bridge in Chicago that allow dogs of all sizes everywhere except the food court, with pet comfort stations treats, water, and poop bags galore.

As retail stores suffer—with shopping malls constantly on death watch—catering four-legged friends could be a way to attract shoppers who might otherwise spend their time and money elsewhere. For malls, the big crowds and fat margins of the 1980s are long gone, as is their role as the lively social centers of the suburbs. Mall owners and their marketing teams are left to expand their horizons to stay in business, whether that means letting pets in, organizing ticketed events like Cirque du Soleil performances, or taking on the functions of community centers.

But these promotional tactics face an innate challenge: Malls aren’t true public spaces. They’re privately owned shopping centers, and, when push comes to shove, it becomes clear that they were never meant to be anything else.

From the beginning, Rosedale’s experiment had a lot going for it. This bustling suburban mall has large open spaces that are protected from the elements. In the pre-shopping hours, patrons enjoyed ample parking close to the building—which, for Minnesotans, often means a chance to leave heavy winter jackets in the car and walk around sweat-free as a result. And when the weather is at its very worst, there simply aren’t many other places that invite people and their dogs to socialize indoors and get some exercise for free.

Stores got in on the action, too. Some left bowls of treats and water in front of their doors to welcome pups in the morning. Two coffee shops opened early, selling treats and giving humans a chance to caffeinate along the way. There were dog birthday parties, complete with dog-friendly birthday cakes. Breed-specific meetups were popular too, with groups of Schnauzers walking together, passing packs of German Shepherds along the way. Dogs of all shapes, sizes, and ages turned out by the hundreds, tethered to their humans. At one point, even a brave black cat on a leash meandered through the mix.

“It’s an enjoyable way for the dog and us to get some steps in [during] the winter,” Roseville resident and dog dad Matt Hagen says.

To address the anticipated mess, tables were set up throughout the two levels with poop bags and Clorox wipes. Once held for the two hours before the mall’s 11 a.m. opening, the timing shifted this year, taking place from 8 to 10 a.m. to give staff more time to get the mall ready for shoppers and diminish allergens for those who might be affected. Even with the best of intentions, many owners missed accidents here and there if they were mid-conversation and not paying close attention, or if a dog let out a quick little piddle mid-stride. And once there’s a scent on the ground, dogs are sure to pile on. Many attendees made a community clean-up effort, trying to take care of messes that weren’t their own, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.

For the fans, the cancelation is a real loss. Where else can people and their dogs go to share in some social and physical activity that’s free and indoors? Other indoor options for dogs, like doggie daycare, can be expensive. Dog-friendly breweries are popular across the Twin Cities, but bellying up to a bar doesn’t provide much exercise for either party.

Some found other benefits, too.

“I started bringing my fosters there to get them exposure and made them a little ‘Adopt Me’ scarf,” says St. Paul resident Annette Pallesen. She fondly recalls events like last Halloween, when the mall brought in a professional to photograph dogs in their costumes, as well as visits from police K-9 units for a fundraiser. “There’s nothing else like it, and it’s free.”

A foster dog stands on a Halloween display at the Rosedale Mall.
Milo, one of Pallesen’s foster dogs, poses at a Halloween event at Rosedale Center. (Courtesy of Annette Pallesen)

The February 18th announcement that the event would end saddened the dog lovers of the Twin Cities area, but many saw it coming. Both Hagen and Pallesen worried that owners neglecting to clean up after their dogs could someday lead to the end of the event before the announcement was made.

“I can’t blame a private entity for stopping a voluntary, free activity. [It is] definitely a loss for the dog community, but it was a ton of fun while it lasted,” Hagen says, hopeful that the event might return next winter after the mall’s current renovations are complete.

Rosedale Center’s general manager said canceling was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made. “For right now, it’s done,” Crain says. “There might be an occasional pop-up event in the future, but for now we’ve moved on to other promotions.”

Looking back on what might have made the event more manageable, Crain says it might take a dedicated team of five or six people to clean up during the event, plus an outdoor space among the mall’s concrete landscape for pups to relieve themselves.

“It makes me sad,” Pallesen says, but jokes: “I’m just going to start shopping at Home Depot for things I don’t need now. They allow dogs.”

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