OREM — Circa 1997, there was a common sentiment among Utah County shoppers: The University Mall was a cave, albeit a carpeted one with a great selection of jeans.

At the time, the so-called cave had few windows and seemed dark inside. Its future seemed just as gloomy.

In Provo, two snazzy new malls were being built and heavily marketed. And it seemed everybody — local economists, Orem city leaders and avid shoppers — believed the days of Utah County's oldest mall were numbered.

Everybody except the people who knew better.

"We didn't subscribe to the theory that when the Provo Towne Centre and the Shops at the Riverwoods went in we would be the losers in the deal," said Rob Kallas, manager of the University Mall. "We knew we had a plan, and we knew it would work."

The plan — a renovation project that will cost more than $80 million when finished — has more than worked.

While sales initially dipped after the two other malls opened, sales figures rebounded the following year and have steadily climbed since. Last year sales at

University Mall increased nearly 10 percent over the previous year.

The renovation project isn't complete, but no one would mistake the mall for a cave now. The ceilings, illuminated by a bounty of sky lights, have been painted in pastel hues.

Trees and shrubs, stone pillars and wood floors that are included in many of the stores, give the mall the feeling of a lodge, which was the design's intent.

The dated carpet has been replaced with sleek tile, and in the middle of the mall stands a giant tree house fit for a hobbit.

The most notable change at the mall — and its most celebrated — is the addition of Nordstrom.

Even its entrance, which includes a fireplace and leather couches situated below wall paintings, suggests the shopper is about to enter a distinctively different realm of shopping.

Nordstrom's importance to the mall goes beyond aesthetics: It was essential to the mall's economic survival.

In 1998, Orem city essentially agreed to pay ZCMI to stay at University Mall instead of following J.C. Penney and Sears to the Provo Towne Centre. ZCMI was later bought by Meier and Frank, which now operates an anchor store in the mall.

Without a store like Nordstrom, other high-end retailers like Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer may not have come to the mall, says Dean L. Offret, the mall's marketing director. And without those stores and others, the mall wouldn't be competitive in Utah County's growing retail market.

"I'm not going to say Nordstrom is the end-all, be-all to our success, but it is a big name and it has a big draw," he said.

Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce President Steve Densley says the mall's survival was critical for Orem city because the mall pays millions of dollars each year in property and sales tax. He calls the mall the most important economic development in Orem's history.

"We understand that the consumer's dollar only stretches so far, and with an increase in the number of stores that offer everything under the roof, we also realize we have to offer something special," Offret says.

What University Mall offers to customers in the way of convenience is the same thing it offers to prospective tenants. It is located at one of the busiest intersections in the state — 96,000 cars pass through it daily — and it is nestled in the center of Utah County's growth.

It is also the largest mall in terms of square footage in Utah, and its renovation and expansion isn't complete. Plans call for more parking spaces, new restaurants like P.F. Chang's and a multiplex movie theater.

"I really applaud what they've done there," Densley said. "I don't think there's too much reason for our shoppers to go up to Salt Lake anymore."

E-MAIL: jhyde@desnews.com