Pacers co-owner, mall developer Mel Simon dies at 82

Mel Simon, shopping center industry pioneer and Indiana Pacers co-owner, died Wednesday at 82 after a short illness.

Simon, the son of a New York tailor, spent nearly 40 years leading what is now Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the nation's largest shopping mall company.

He and his brother Herb bought the Pacers in 1983 when it looked as if the NBA team would be moved.

The team staged a great turnaround under the Simons, even though they remained behind the scenes for most of their ownership.

The Pacers were coming off a 20-62 season and averaged home crowds of fewer than 5,000 fans in 1983 — less than a year before the NFL's Colts moved to the city from Baltimore.

The Simons promoted Donnie Walsh from assistant coach to general manager three years later and largely gave him control of the team for some 20 years. With star players such as Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals six times in 11 years and the NBA finals in 2000, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The team's success led to the construction of Conseco Fieldhouse, which opened in 1999, replacing Market Square Arena.

Before Simon Property Group got its name, it was Melvin Simon & Associates, named for the man who started the company in 1960 in Indianapolis.

Jerry Kosene of the Indianapolis development firm Kosene & Kosene said Melvin Simon "helped invent an industry. He was among two or three pivotal people in the shopping center industry who created the enclosed shopping mall. No one did it on the scale and velocity he did it."

"They were of a different ilk then than you find today — street-savvy men with great integrity. You could literally shake his hand and that was the bond," Kosene said.

Simon had come to Indianapolis from his native New York to serve in the Army at the former Fort Benjamin Harrison. He earned money on the side selling encyclopedias and cookware. It wasn't long before he found a way to make a lot more money: developing enclosed shopping malls in a fast-suburbanizing America.

Melvin and younger brother Herbert got their first taste of the malling of America by codeveloping Eastgate Shopping Center on the city's Eastside in the late 1950s with developer Albert Frankel. In 1960, the brothers went off on their own and began building some of the first enclosed shopping malls in Indiana, in towns such as Anderson and Bloomington.

"My accountant at the time..... said that shopping centers were overbuilt," Mr. Simon recalled with a laugh in one interview.

The brothers persuaded Sears Roebuck to become an anchor in many of their first enclosed malls, something the country's largest department store chain at the time was loath to do.

For 40 years, the company's growth hardly slowed. Melvin Simon & Associates would broaden its scope from coast to coast, becoming a favored developer for many of the nation's largest chain retailers, including JCPenney and an upstart named Kmart.

Simon also was a Hollywood movie producer in the 1970s and '80s, when he scored a big hit with the raunchy teen comedy "Porky's," but he had many more flops.

"I did about 25 movies and I got out of it, thank God — it didn't cost me any money ultimately," Simon told The Indianapolis Star in 2002. "It was a good lesson, and I wouldn't do it again."

Simon's national shopping mall holdings consistently placed him on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. The magazine's 2009 list put his net worth at $1.3 billion, (down from $2.6 billion in 2008).

Simon used his wealth for many good works.

Simon and his wife, Bren, donated $25 million to Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center at the IU School of Medicine campus in Indianapolis. They also contributed $25 million to the research efforts at the center in memory of their late son Joshua Max Simon.


Contributing: Jeff Swiatek, The Indianapolis Star; The Associated Press