For those of us who fled to the suburbs in the 1960s seeking a good place to raise a family, it seemed like Valley Fair Mall would never become a reality.

Once area residents learned there would be a mall built on the west side of Salt Lake Valley, they couldn't wait until the mall opened: It meant a chance to shop close to home without going to downtown Salt Lake City or the Cottonwood Mall, the first such regional shopping center in Utah.The only thing strange about the mall to residents was why did the owners pick a weed-infested field at 3500 South and 2700 West. But, when you need 54 acres for the building and surrounding parking lot, the isolation was a necessity.

In the intervening 21 years, however, under the direction of O. Richard Flack, Valley Fair Mall has become part of the city's main activity hub, especially since the city opened its administrative offices across the street. Flack is the only manager the mall has had.

As with many projects where there are large tracts of land involved and many permits that must be obtained before construction can begin, Valley Fair Mall had its own share of controversy.

According to a May 30, 1970, story in the Deseret News by former Business Editor Don Woodward, the mall went through numerous hearings, a near-fatal tight-money situation and a Utah Supreme Court decision. At one time, three locations were being proposed for the shopping center.

ZCMI had its own proposed site, Doxey-Layton Realty Co. was pushing the present site and a third site was being cleared at 4100 West and 3500 South. ZCMI joined with Doxey-Layton, and with approval of the high court, a building permit was issued and construction started in October 1968 for Valley Centers Inc., the owner.

In 1969, BUR Inc., purchased the mall, which was completed in July 1970. The original cost was put at $12 million, but that didn't include the interior furnishings and the money the tenants had to spend on their owns areas.

The mall was an instant hit with residents even though the population base was rather limited at first. In 1972, Winmar Co. Inc., Seattle, purchased the mall and remains the owner.

Several fountains were taken out in 1977, Flack said, and in 1980 Mervyns was built on the east side of the mall, which necessitated a new corridor for access to that store. That gave the mall three anchor tenants, ZCMI, J.C. Penney and Mervyns.

In 1985 the entire 4,172-space parking lot was overlaid with concrete, and in 1986 a total renovation project was started. The renovation included a new facade, landscaping, skylights, and changes in the center court and floors. A food court was added and the number of theaters went from four to nine.

Flack said that when the mall was first designed it was supposed to be darker so the lights in the individual stores would stand out, much like people walking down the street at night. But as time went on, malls changed, and now the trend is toward a light and airy atmosphere.

And, as each store's lease runs out, they are required to install "pop-out" storefronts, so each store has its own individual look. Only 10 stores have yet to redo their fronts, Flack said.

As with any shopping center, tenants change occasionally. Flack said the main reason why stores leave the mall is inadequate capital to see them through off-seasons. Some of the stores have been "mom and pop" operations that were almost doomed from the start.

Traffic problems were a problem for the mall. Since there was no entrance from the east, the mall built a road at 3650 South to connect to 2200 West. When I-215 became a reality, it meant easy access from all parts of Salt Lake Valley, Davis County and even Tooele County. Flack said people come from all over to shop.

Flack said it is important for a mall to have the anchor stores because of the cross traffic they create. He said a mall needs a good cross-section of stores, and some people must realize that certain types of stores don't do well in malls.

Now that Valley Fair Mall is 21 years old, what is its future? Immediate plans call for a change in the landscaping on 2700 West for more flowers and enlargement of the customer-service booth installed three years ago. He sees continual changes in the next five to 10 years.

Marketing is an important part of running a mall. Last month Flack hired Kathi Lund, who formerly worked for the Valley West Chamber of Commerce. Lund has many ideas for the Christmas season to make the mall just as attractive as Temple Square.

In addition to new decorations, people will be selling specialty items from carts, each merchant will have his entrance decorated, curtain lights will be installed and the center court will have a village featuring the gang from the comic strip Peanuts. Children wind their way through the village and at the end find Santa Claus.

Hanging above the center court will be a large airplane with Snoopy at the controls. Lund said everything for the season will be done in a family atmosphere. Also, singing groups will be back in the mall after a two-year absence, and she is working with the West Valley Arts Council to line up appearances of opera singers, symphony performers and dancers.

Lund wants the mall to be the educational center of the community where people can attend a variety of functions and where people can go to learn about community activities. She plans to have four or five community-oriented activities per month. She believes mall personnel should act as coaches to help the merchants be successful.

All of this has the approval of Flack, an East High School and University of Utah graduate, who has worked for Phillips Petroleum Co. and the Personal Products Division of Johnson & Johnson.

His hiring as mall manager was an accident. He originally went to officials of Valley Center Inc. to inquire about opening a junior clothes stores. "The manager apparently liked my qualifications even though I didn't know anything about shopping centers, and he hired me Oct. 3, 1968."

In addition to his Valley Fair duties, Flack also manages a strip shopping center for Winmar in Flagstaff, Ariz., and a shopping center in Santa Ana, Calif. He also is president-elect of the Valley West Chamber of Commerce.