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Israel's first open-air shopping mall, Big Fashion, located in Nazareth, was ceremoniously opened this week, in a crowded event featuring the elite of the Arab-Israeli business community of the North.
Hundreds gathered Tuesday for a cocktail party, speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new shopping center.
The center, which features 12,000 square meters of retail space and is home to more than 90 stores, is co-owned by Big Shopping Centers, real estate giant Africa-Israel and Nazareth-based B.S.T. development and construction.
Another partner is the Greek Orthodox Church, on whose land the new center was built and which will earn 18 percent of the center's revenue. The center cost NIS 150 million to build.
True to its name, Big Fashion hosts a wide variety of clothing and accessories stores, boasting famous brands, like Zara, Castro, Golf & Co and Pull & Bear. Two-thirds of the shops belong to large chains or their franchises, with the remainder made up of smaller, private stores.
Big Shopping Centers president Eitan Bar-Zeev said he sees a great advantage in locating the new mall in a mixed city.
"The center sits in the heart of the Arab Israeli sector, and serves people whose religious days of rest are Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We gain benefit from all of them," he said.
Nazareth, which with roughly 80,000 residents is Israel's largest Arab city, is made up of 70 percent Muslims and 30 percent Christians while nearby Upper Nazareth has a mostly Jewish population.
The new mall's design was inspired by similarly built shopping centers that have proven successful in the United States and Europe. It features four open-air concourses that meet in a large plaza in the center of the building. The design provides shoppers with the experience of walking in a stylized urban street, while setting them in a protected and controlled environment.
"We can all feel the pleasant breeze when walking through the mall," Bar-Zeev. "What we've tried to do is imitate the feeling of a street, but a street that is entirely in our control."
One of the chief concerns about this type of a mall is the effect that the weather will have on earnings.
"There are critics who claim that raising this type of a shopping center will lead to fewer visitors on certain days of the year, but the way we see it, since there are only 17 rainy days on average in Israel, we decided to take the risk," said Bar-Zeev.
He added that their research showed that on rainy days people tend to stay at home anyway, so whether the mall is roofed or not makes little difference.
Employees of the center and those who work in the stores come from all the sectors of the local population.
"We intentionally planned it that way so that customers would feel comfortable in any store they entered. Before opening we held a big job fair that all the chains participated in," said director of projects and promotions Hila Noy.
She said that once the center was running normally it would host a variety of special events like concerts, fashion shows and promotional sales.
"Our concept is that you don't have to go to Tel Aviv to experience the urban lifestyle, we bring the lifestyle to you," she said.
"The building of Big Fashion in Nazareth is a model of mutual respect and understanding between the promoters and the partners and the chain owners, vision and support by the local municipality, hard work by the best personnel in the field and encouragement of a population that includes Muslims, Christians and Jews, who can provide an example of tolerance for the whole region," said Bar-Zeev.
Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy said the new center marked a watershed moment for the city.
"People no longer have to go outside the city to visit the mall, from now on people from out of town will come to Nazareth," he said.
Jaraisy said he hoped that visitors and tourists who come to shop at the mall will extend their visit in the city, which hosts many other attractions.
Neighboring Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gafsou also came to express support for the new shopping center.
"I am certain that this type of project can greatly assist the relationship between Upper Nazareth and Nazareth and I think it is necessary and important to show local and regional cooperation," he said, wishing the center and the people of Nazareth good fortune and prosperity.
Big Fashion held a grand opening event for the public on Wednesday, featuring a concert by the singer Sarit Hadad and children's entertainer Yuval Hamebulbal
Big Fashion is the newest of 14 shopping centers operated by the Big Group; the majority are what is known as power centers, home to big-box style retail stores.
Big operates shopping centers all across the country from Nahariya in the North to Eilat in the South. Bar-Zeev said the company is weighing the opening of additional fashion centers.