INDIANAPOLIS -- Building suburban indoor malls that drew generations of American shoppers was Melvin Simon's specialty. He was among the first to jump on the trend in the 1960s, starting a company that eventually made him a billionaire and became the largest in the business.
Simon, who led what is now Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc. for nearly 40 years and also owned the NBA's Indiana Pacers with his brother, died Wednesday at age 82, company spokesman Les Morris said. Details on the circumstances were not released.
Simon had not made any public appearances in recent months and his brother had asked for prayers for him at a July event during which the two were honored as Indiana legends.
Simon was working for an Indianapolis real estate company when he and his younger brother, Herbert, started their own company in 1960. Simon Property Group, a real estate investment trust, now has full or partial ownership of more than 300 shopping malls in the United States, Europe and Japan, netting Simon a fortune that Forbes magazine estimated this year at $1.3 billion.
Norman Kranzdorf, a Philadelphia-area developer who built shopping centers throughout the East Coast, said Simon helped lead the suburban mall trend by signing up major tenants such as J.C. Penney and Sears.
"He was one of the first developers to establish a rapport with the big department stores to be the anchors in his malls," said Kranzdorf, who knew Simon since the early '60s. "There just were no malls when he started."
Simon's interests also extended to politics and the movies. He and his wife were major Democratic Party donors, and he was best known in Hollywood for producing the raunchy teen comedy "Porky's."
Simon, who grew up in the Bronx as the son of a New York City tailor, arrived in Indianapolis in the 1950s when he was stationed at the Army's Fort Benjamin Harrison and entered the commercial real estate business in the city after his discharge.
"I enjoyed it, but in a couple of years I decided I wanted to be the person to make the decisions," Simon told Indiana Business magazine in 1991. "That's how we got into developing."
Melvin Simon & Associates initially concentrated on strip malls anchored by grocery stores and pharmacies. The scale of its projects grew until the company opened the Mall of America in a Minneapolis suburb in 1992. It also built the Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis in 1995.
The Simon brothers were credited with keeping professional basketball in Indianapolis when they bought the Pacers in 1983 at the behest of city leaders to head off a deal that could have seen the team move -- less than a year before the NFL's Colts moved to the city from Baltimore.
"Mel Simon, as much as any person over the last 40 years, is responsible for Indianapolis becoming a big-league city," said Pacers Sports & Entertainment President Jim Morris, a former president of the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, one of the nation's largest philanthropies. "His efforts transformed our community."
While Simon's guests at his estate in suburban Carmel included former President Bill Clinton and his philanthropy gave $50 million for Indiana University's cancer center and $10 million to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he kept a low profile, rarely speaking in public or giving interviews.
The Simon family has remained the largest shareholder in Simon Property Group, and when the founding brothers stepped down as co-chairmen in 2007, they turned the chairmanship over to Mel's oldest son, David, who had been its CEO since 1995. One daughter, Deborah Simon, leads the Simon Youth Foundation and another, Cindy Simon Skjodt, heads the Pacers Foundation.
Like other real estate investment trusts, Simon Properties has been grappling with the fallout from the recession and the financial crisis.
The mall operator's vacancies spiked this year as many retailers cut back on space or were forced out of business. But Simon has fared better than others, notably rival General Growth Properties Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection in April. Simon has raised more than $1.6 billion in capital from investors this year and its stock has climbed 42 percent since the start of the year.
Simon divorced his first wife, Bess Meshulam Simon, and has been married since 1972 to Bren Simon, who is a former member of the Democratic National Committee and a leader of numerous charitable and civic organizations. His first wife, Bess Meshulam Simon, died of cancer in 1977, and the Simons later gave $2.1 million toward an Indiana University music center that was named for her in 1995.
Simon had five children, including a son, Max, who died in 1999 at age 25.
The Indiana Pacers staged a great turnaround after the Simons bought the NBA franchise, 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 when they bought the team in 1983. But 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.
A run of on- and off-court troubles with players -- most prominently the 2004 brawl with Detroit Pistons fans -- ended their playoff triumphs and led Herb Simon to take over day-to-day operations last year.
Simon's time as a Hollywood movie producer was marred when his daughter, Deborah, was kidnapped in 1981 from outside her parents' Beverly Hills mansion. The 25-year-old escaped unharmed the next day and police arrested the gunman who apparently picked her at random and then demanded a $500,000 ransom.
Simon said he was "absolutely flabbergasted" when "Porky's" -- with its scenes of teenage boys spying on girls in a locker room shower and visiting a brothel named Porky's -- became a big hit in 1982.
Melvin Simon Productions more frequently had flops, including "Zorro, The Gay Blade" with George Hamilton and Carol Burnett's "Chu Chu and The Philly Flash."
"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."