By Drew Olson Special to Published Dec 01, 2009 at 4:15 PM

According to the official Web site for The Shops of Grand Avenue, more than 5 million people visit the facility on Wisconsin Avenue each year.

I don't think I was counted among the visitors last year ...

Or, the year before that ... or, the year before that ...

I'd have to rack my brain, but I'm pretty sure I made it through most of this decade without setting foot inside the only major indoor shopping complex within the city limits.

I walked by plenty of times. I even used the parking lot once or twice when I was attending a show at the Riverside or grabbing a drink at Mo's Irish Pub or some other nearby spot. I've read pieces by Jeff Sherman and others on this site about the mall and its future. But, I don't think I ever shopped at a store in what was once known as the Grand Avenue Mall and -- based on conversations with several friends and acquaintances -- I'm pretty sure I was not alone in that regard.

But all of that changed for me recently.

Two weeks ago, the radio station (540 ESPN) that employs me at my "other job," moved its studios from the East Town neighborhood to the Reuss Federal Building, also known as the blue behemoth at the corner of Third and Wisconsin. The ground-floor location guaranteed that I will spend a few hours each weekday looking out the window at Grand Avenue's main entrance.

On the first day at our new digs, I ventured over to check out the action at the Shops of Grand Avenue.

Let's just say there wasn't much.

It was a sunny late-afternoon and the shops were quiet. As I strolled in solitude, heading east from Boston Store toward the center court area, my mind began racing. I remember my high school geometry teacher being stoked about the mall's grand opening back in 1982. I thought back to my college days in the mid-1980s, when my buddies and I would kill a few hours on Saturday afternoon by walking around the bustling mall, eating at the food court and maybe picking up a pair of jeans or a CD.

(Yep, people actually bought CDs in stores back then, kids).

As I continued to walk toward the once-bustling Plankinton Arcade, I began to think back on my 12 years as a traveling baseball writer. I spent way too many lunch hours wandering around quiet malls in downtown areas. Almost all of them had the same vibe -- sleepy, outdated and somewhat sad. Most of them featured a drug store, a discount department store, a couple of shoe stores, a jewelry store or two, a Radio Shack, a food court and a place that sold T-shirts and hats that were airbrushed to look like graffiti.

After five minutes, I realized that The Shops of Grand Avenue shares similarities to others I encountered in places like Cleveland, Baltimore, Minneapolis and St. Louis.

There was, however, one major difference.

Maybe it was the sun streaming in through the windows or the fact that the temperature outside was pleasant for mid-November, but I did not feel that my hometown mall is hopeless.

Sure, there are problems. The vacancy rate. The lack of access from Wisconsin Avenue. The lack of activity toward the east side of the mall.... But, there were positives, too.

The architecture at Grand Avenue is stunning. The mall is clean and so are the skywalks that connect it to nearby offices and apartments. The employees and customers I encountered were friendly. Nobody asked me for change. There were no gangs of marauding high-schoolers wreaking havoc, which flies against a stereotype held by many city residents I've talked to in the past few days.

I think it's cool that there is an OfficeMax in the heart of Downtown. TJ Maxx is a good option for conventioneers who need a black belt or a tie. The food court has a Culver's, a Qdoba, a Rocky Rococo's and several other options that make it worth a stop.

Certainly, the facility lacks the bustle that it carried in the 1980s, when the vacancy rate was non-existent and Marshall Field's and Boston Store battled each other for business. It may never have that juice again.

But even though my long-standing vision of a casino/hotel/retail/condo/sports arena development at the site will never materialize, I still think that The Shops of Grand Avenue can satisfy the growing number of Downtown residents and revitalize the north side of Wisconsin Avenue and possibly even underutilized portions of Wells Street and Michigan Avenue.

Almost anyone you talk to will say that the mall needs more and better stores, better signage, access to the shops from the street and more restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Ideas are cheap. Solutions aren't. With our mayor and county executive set to battle for an office in Madison, our city fathers aren't going to place a high priority on adding sizzle to a sagging mall.

There are tough questions that need to be asked before they can be answered. For starters, there is this: what has to be done to make sure that someone who lives or works near Downtown will never go 10 years without stepping into The Shops of Grand Avenue?

If you were in charge, how would you change the facility? Send us your input and we'll keep the discussion going.

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.