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'Community icon' Melvin Simon dies

September 16, 2009

Melvin Simon, a tailor’s son who earned billions building shopping malls across the U.S. and later became a prolific philanthropist in his adopted hometown of Indianapolis, has died. He was 82.

Simon succumbed today after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Simon was co-owner with brother Herb of the Indiana Pacers basketball franchise and chairman emeritus of Simon Property Group Inc., the nation’s largest owner of retail real estate.

He was instrumental in the resurgence of downtown Indianapolis as a champion of Circle Centre mall in the mid-1990s and as a buyer of the financially strapped Indiana Pacers in the mid-1980s. More recently, Simon focused on philanthropic endeavors, including gifts of $10 million to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and $50 million for the IU Simon Cancer Center, including an endowment in honor of his late son Joshua Max Simon.

“He was a model for this community—I can’t say enough about him not only as a business man but as a charitable person,” said Sidney D. Eskenazi, the first attorney for Melvin Simon & Associates and now CEO of locally based Sandor Development Co. “Indianapolis has been lucky to have a family like the Simons, Mel in particular. We’ve lost a community icon.”

Mayor Greg Ballard echoed his sentiment.

"The city of Indianapolis today lost a true partner and friend with the death of Mel Simon. Mel and the entire Simon family have done great work in strengthening our local economy and improving our downtown district," Ballard said this morning in a written statement. "Mel will be truly missed and forever remembered for his many contributions to this city and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family at this time."

Simon's funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, 600 W. 70th St. A private internment will follow.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Joshua Max Simon Primary Care Center at St.Vincent Hospital.

Simon was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 21, 1926, to Max and Mae Simon, and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA from City College in New York.

In 1953, the Army sent Simon to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. Simon stuck around after leaving the Army, taking a $100-a-week job leasing space at the Eastgate Shopping Center, according to The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. He would later buy the center.

He formed Melvin Simon & Associates in 1960 with his brothers Herb and Fred. They began by developing strip centers but soon sought to cash in on the enclosed-mall craze. The company grew fast, opening a couple of malls per year in the 1970s and 1980s.

Simon had tremendous vision, even in the early days when money was tight; he would see a piece of property and decide on the spot it was perfect for a shopping center, Eskenazi said.

He was generous, humble and honest with friends as well as business associates, said longtime friend Barton Kaufman.

“Melvin was a man who was only interested in win-win situations,” Kaufman said. “He wanted to win in the transaction, but he also wanted you to win. They don’t make them like him anymore; he was an original.”

Simon Property Group went public in 1995, acquired several of its competitors and today has interests in 320 retail properties in the U.S. and more than 60 international properties. Simon’s son, David, serves as the company’s CEO.

Even as Melvin Simon’s health began to fail in recent years, he kept in touch with the real estate business. He made the rounds on a scooter at the 2008 International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, cracking jokes and catching up with old friends.

Simon and his wife, Bren, also kept in touch with Hollywood friends he made during an unsuccessful foray into moviemaking in the 1980s, and with prominent Democratic leaders such as former President Bill Clinton. The Simons hosted political fundraisers and lavish parties over the years at their Carmel estate known as Asherwood.

The most recent calculations by Forbes say Simon has a net worth of about $1.3 billion, down from $3.4 billion in 2007. Simon’s fortune took a hit after shares in Simon Property Group fell sharply in 2008, but he likely made up ground as the share price has risen for 2009. He was ranked among the 600 richest men in the world.

Simon has won numerous honors for his business acumen and philanthropic efforts. They include the Jewish Welfare Federation’s Man of the Year, the Horatio Alger Award, appointment as a lifetime trustee of the Urban Land Institute, and a spot in the Central Indiana Business Hall of Fame.

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