Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Fun Factory Will Not See ‘05 in KC

As 2004 faded into history, so did an era at Oak Park Mall. After 20 years, time ran out on Fun Factory at Oak Park and with it, Kansas City’s last link to the arcade gaming giant.

Fernandez Entertainment, which has owned and operated Fun Factory (www.funfactorygames.com) locations since 1977, did not renew their lease with the Mall.

The company says that the action was purely a business-based decision. With their lease up, they decided to move elsewhere, ending their relationship with Oak Park Mall.

Voices from inside the mall say nothing of the sort. Even with Oak Park Mall officials unable to comment on what spurred the transformation of the Mall's west end (candy king “Mr. Bulky's” has been relocated), those at the bottom of the totem pole feel they are certain of what transpired. Word of the almost overnight axing of Fun Factory spread like wildfire around the Mall's west end. What they saw happening would have made for a great one-liner for the California Governor.

“They had their lease terminated,” said one mall employee. “(The Mall) was sick of dealing with teenagers.”

(The west end) has become the dead end of the mall.”

Information pertaining to Fun Factory's surprise closing is common knowledge amongst workers. The word 'termination' comes up time and time again when they discuss why Fun Factory made such a quick and unexpected exit.

Fernandez Entertainment, a Hawaiian-based company, has been in the entertainment business for over 100 years. Fun Factory has driven their business on the mainland, allowing them to remain viable in the market. As December came to a close, the Fernandez entertainment empire, a 101-year-old family business, lost its only remaining claim to not only Kansas City, but the entire Midwest region of the country.

Prior to the Oak Park Mall closing, Fernandez had also seen its Fun Factory stores at Independence Center and Metro North Mall come and go. The first Fun Factory in Kansas City, at Bannister Mall, was also eliminated long ago. Even with a number of shopping centers in the area, Fernandez Entertainment says Fun Factory is not going to be coming back to the Kansas City anytime soon.

We’re going to explore other markets,” Donna Smith said, speaking on behalf of Fernandez Entertainment from their headquarters in Hawaii. “Areas change and we have to look at other markets where Fun Factory would be a good fit.”

Smith, nor Oak Park Mall Spokesperson Stacy Sheelk, would identify the exact nature of Fernandez Entertainment’s lease with the facility. Smith described the split as an amicable one, saying it was the sole decision of Fernandez Entertainment not to renew the lease. Neither side is willing to characterize the nature of the negotiations which might have extended the lease and allowed Fun Factory to remain at the Mall. Oak Park official directs information concerning the lease situation to Park Properties, who was directly involved in negotiating the lease on behalf of Fernandez Entertainment. Calls to their offices were not immediately returned. The only comment to come from the Park Properties office has been:

“We have no comment...it's not a story.”

Smith did indicate that many shopping centers, in general, are taking a second look at how entertainment centers venues such as Fun Factory fit into their plans.

Oak Park Mall is a lot more upscale than it used to be,” Smith said. “Malls, in general, are becoming more apprehensive toward anything that might attract younger people.”

Kids need a place to have fun, but many shopping malls think it’s bad for business to have anything that would keep teenagers hanging around food courts or movie theaters.”

In the past two years, Kansas City has seen public and private groups work to impose creative solutions, such as curfews, on this perceived problem in order to keep young patrons away from retail shopping districts and other entertainment centers. Westport and the Country Club Plaza both have had public fights over how to use the law to prevent teenagers from congregating by the masses on these popular sites.

In 2004, Oak Park Mall implemented a new set of “Family Hours,” designed to close up shop earlier on weekends. This was one of the more subtle policy measures (nonetheless, directly related to Fun Factory crowds according to one Mall worker) that was put in place to dissuade teenagers from using the mall as a late night center of congregation.

The Family Hours campaign follows what Smith said she believed was an image overhaul taking place at mall's like Oak Park across the country. However, she disagrees that entertainment establishments open to teenagers can fit within the framework of these more 'upscale' shopping districts.

Our stores are environments that promote fun, fun for entire families,” Smith said. “Just because your business attracts younger people doesn’t mean that it turns the entire area into a dark parking lot for drug dealers.”

Parents can be comfortable when their children are at Fun Factory because it’s a place for friends to gather and interact rather than just sitting at home and being by themselves.”

Jim Weaver, the Public Information Officer for the Overland Park Police, identified only seven different occasions in 2004 when his office responded to calls from in or around the Fun Factory area of the Mall. Of these seven “Police Events,” Weaver pinpointed five of them as originating from Fun Factory. The details of these criminal happening include:

*An intoxicated person making obscene gestures toward women.

*A man passing out at the arcade and banging his head on a machine (simultaneously).

*A terminated employee refusing to leave after requests from the store manager.

*A verbal dispute between an employee and customer.

*A set of car keys stolen when left unattended atop a coin machine.

Despite the growing popularity in the last two decades of home-based video game consoles(Xbox, PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, etc.), the popularity of Fun Factory has not diminished. Fernandez Entertainment sank significant time and energy into keeping Fun Factory at the cutting edge of the market, which brought the Overland Park location resources it needed to remain competitive with Sony and Nintendo. Fun Factory pioneered the merchandise centers that are now seen at modern day arcades. This allowed patrons to redeem tickets for unique prizes in the same fashion that carnival prizes are awarded. The fun factory atmosphere was lifted straight from the Fernandez family’s background in outdoor amusement parks.

We have always tried to bring that carnival environment to our stores,” Smith said. “We always try to build our brand in stores that can capture that same kind of excitement.”

The Kansas City Star, like other local media outlets that enjoy enormous advertising relationships with the Mall, has not made any mention of the Fun Factory’s closing. On Christmas Eve, a story involving counterfeit money circulating at the Mall made headlines in morning papers and during nightly newscasts. The case, which brought with it the wrath of the U.S. Secret Service, stayed in the news cycle through the holiday week. The media was fixated on the fact that Mall police had tracked down the teenage offenders while riding Segway transporters. The implications of Fun Factory's exit garnered no coverage.

By Christmas Eve, Fun Factory was cleaning out the store's inventory instead of enjoying the biggest window of opportunity in the calendar year for retailers. Inventory was being boxed up in hopes of being redistributed to other stores still in operation (the closest remaining Fun Factory is at the Universal Mall in Warren, Michigan, which confirmed the purchase of a handful of machines from the Oak Park Mall location). One now former employee said that he found it hard to believe that Oak Park Mall would not extend Fun Factory’s lease.

It doesn’t add up if they say it was because of money,” he said. “The store was always making money. It’s obvious to me why the lease wasn’t renewed.”

Why were we the only store in the mall with security cameras set up outside. That tells me what they thought of this place.”

The security came as he refers to sit above Mr. Bulky’s, the popular confection store next to where Fun Factory was located. Mr. Bulky’s, another staple of the Mall’s west end, also provides a product consumed in great quantities by the teenage crowd. It too has moved out of the west end, but has managed to find a new home on the lower level of the Mall. It will be reopened this winter under the name “Sweets.” Oak Park Mall officials declined to say if there were any added security concerns attributed to Fun Factory’s operation.

Whether or not the move was more about politics and image construction than economics, what is certain is that the arcade gaming market in Kansas City is all but disappeared in shopping districts. Bowling alleys, and a few miniature golf courses still provide a sanctuary for the modern day gamer looking to get out of their parents' basement. However, it doesn’t appear likely that indoor shopping mall or outdoor shopping strips have any desire at this time to maintain a relationship with companies that provide the kind of video game entertainment environment that the Fernandez family has brought to Kansas City and other towns around the lower forty-eight states.

We’ve been in business over 100 years here in Hawaii, so our brand will never be the same here as it is on the mainland,” Smith said. “People here have grown up with Fernandez, so they know us and know they can count on us to deliver fun.”

Fun is what we will continue to find ways to bring people.”