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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Canada fired the first shot in the battle of the outlet malls Thursday, cutting the ribbon on its giant open-air mall here.

The Outlet Collection at Niagara was filled with thousands of eager shoppers looking for the kinds of bargains and designer brands they could only get in the United States until now.

“We are sending a clear message to the outlet shopping industry that we mean business,” said Daniel E. Fournier, chairman and CEO of Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate firm that developed the mall.

Shoppers snapped up Coach purses, Guess jeans and Lacoste shirts, taking advantage of huge markdowns set in place for the stores’ grand openings.

A few shops, such as GEOX and Hot Topic, are available at malls in Western New York, but not in the outlet format. Other brands, such as North Face Outlet and UGG Outlet, do not have dedicated stores here, in either the outlet or traditional formats, though their products are sold in other area stores.

The mall’s 520,000 square feet of leasable space is filled with 94 retailers, and eight more are on the way.

The $162 million mall, just off the Queen Elizabeth Way, is made up of rows of stores, each with its own entrance connected by a series of partly covered walkways.

A separate food court sits enclosed in a stone-covered building at one end near a grassy outdoor patch where visitors can gather on Adirondack chairs, warm themselves at a fireplace and enjoy live music.

A wall of oak wine barrels is a nod to the region’s nearby wine trails and ties into the quaint feel that draws millions of tourists to Niagara-on-the-Lake each year.

The Outlet Collection is a new concept for Ivanhoé Cambridge, which plans to replicate it at other malls around the world.

Reactions to the open-air style of the mall were mixed – some loved it, some wondered what would happen come winter.

“I actually like that it’s outdoors. I hate being in a stuffy mall with that poor lighting,” said Mary-Jane Wishart, of Fonthill, Ont. “It’s mostly covered, anyway.”

But will it be enough to keep Canadian shoppers from crossing the border to do their shopping in the United States? It depends whom you ask.

Shelly Berenbaum, of Toronto, said that the new mall was “nice” but that she would continue making her weekend-long shopping trips to the States every month, where many shopkeepers and her preferred hotelier know her by name.

“It’s a getaway,” Berenbaum said. “We have our routine. We do our shopping. We go out to dinner. We go to the movies.”

And though the new stores’ grand-opening promotions made it difficult to compare prices, she thought there were still better bargains to be had in the States.

“When you guys have sales, you have sales,” she said.

She cited a pair of UGG boots marked down from $198 to $159 at the Canadian Outlet. A great price for Canada, but she got the same pair on clearance at the U.S. Saks outlet for $50 in February (and currently selling for $102).

Even with a sinking Canadian dollar worth just 92 cents American, that’s quite a deal.

And that’s not to mention Canada’s harmonized tax rate of 13 percent, much higher than Niagara County’s 8 percent.

But some factors go beyond straight math.

Christine Lalonde, of St. Catharines, Ont., said she would still make her monthly trip to the United States to stock up on clothes at Walmart. Though there are Walmarts in Ontario, none has the larger sizes and styles she prefers.

Marilyn Lock, of Hamilton, Ont., talked about differences in inventory and selection, as well, even under identical store banners.

“Target over there, I love it. Target over here, forget it,” she said. “It doesn’t have the same variety or the pricing.”

But plenty of others said the new mall provided everything they needed to keep them from crossing the river.

Girlyn Cayabyab, of St. Catharines, who has been venturing to Walden Galleria to shop every two weeks for years, said she would probably be spending much more time at the Outlet Collection from now on.

“I don’t know, I feel like you guys still have better prices, but by the time you go over the border and everything, I’d rather just pay a little extra and not have to deal with it,” she said.

The economy in Ontario’s Niagara region has struggled, currently limping along at a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, the second-highest in Canada. Losing nearly $1 billion in cross-border spending to Western New York hasn’t helped.

Canadians hope its sleek new outlet mall will be enough to keep some more of those dollars at home.

“Niagara is a region that needs an economic boost, and it’s coming at just the right time,” said David Eke, lord mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

With characteristic Canadian politeness, he said that didn’t like to think that the mall would take away Canadian dollars spent in the States and that he hoped the rising tide would lift all boats.

“With 5.5 million people in the Greater Toronto Area, there’s room enough to share here,” he said. “There’s winners for everyone.”

Only time – and our local sales tax coffers – will tell if the mall’s popularity will put a dent in the Buffalo Niagara economy.

But the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, now about the same size as the new Canadian mall, has pre-emptively prepared for that possibility. It is investing $71 million in an interior and exterior renovation that will add 50 retailers and 175,000 square feet once construction is completed this fall.

“While the newness of the competition will be intriguing to some shoppers, Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls is the largest outlet mall in the region today, and will soon bring even more brands,” said Ann Ackerman, vice president of outlet marketing at Macerich, which owns the American mall.

And it’s not just fashion Canadians come to the States looking for. They stock up on groceries, gasoline and other household supplies, some varieties of which can’t be found north of the border and most of which are much cheaper here even before the tax advantages.

Local tourism agencies have kicked their Canadian outreach efforts into high gear, too. Based on research and focus groups that showed Canadians’ passion for American history, Western New York’s restaurant offerings and other attractions such as sports and music, they are optimistic.

Michelle A. Blackley, spokeswoman for Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said, “We offer such a different experience here, we’re confident we’re still going to get that cross-border traffic.”

email: schristmann@buffnews.com