While local planners, marketing strategists and anxious retailers struggle to turn their malls, town centers and shopping strips into unique hubs of commerce, Glen Burnie is stumbling upon its badge of distinction by accident.
The northern Anne Arundel County town that was dubbed "Chrome City" for its array of auto dealerships and repair shops is partly shedding that image in favor of discount warehouses, specialty stores and hypermarkets.
The list includes some of the most profitable discount chains in the nation, including Price Club, Office Depot, Sports Authority, Home Depot and Leedmark.
Their decision to descend on Glen Burnie has brought a new cachet to the town, along with spruced up shopping strips and brand new buildings.
The latest newcomer, in fact, stands to elevate Glen Burnie another notch.
Syms, the New Jersey-based retailer of off-price designer apparel, opens its first Baltimore area store today at the newly renovated Governor Plaza, next to the state Motor Vehicle Administration headquarters.
Marcy Syms, president and chief operating officer of the company, said, however, that the concentration of low-cost retailers in Glen Burnie is a negative for a chain that considers itself a cut above the discounters.
"Generally speaking, we would rather not be in an area where there are a number of off-price stores," Syms said. "We want to be a destination stop."
That theme appears to dominate the marketing strategy of the 31-year-old company, whose motto is, "An educated consumer is our best customer."
Normally located in free-standing stores that are not attached to a shopping strip or mall, Syms has cultivated an image of providing low cost with panache.
Eschewing the discount label, the chain advertises designer wear for men, women and children that is purchased by the company at below-wholesale prices. That means a wide variety of garments that the manufacturer over-produced but was willing to sell to Syms at a substantially reduced rate.
In return, Syms cannot advertise the labels it carries, many of which can also be found at major department stores.
According to Marcy Syms, the Syms stores' prices are within 10 percent of manufacturers' wholesale prices and 40 percent to 60 percent below regular retail.
Discounters, by contrast, buy at the wholesale price -- often in large quantities -- and sell for less than the standard markup.
Nonetheless, Marcy Syms sees a happy co-existance between her store and the discounters.
"We just hope that once the customer comes in and checks us out, they make us the first stop when they come to the off-price section of Glen Burnie," she said.
In fact, locating in Glen Burnie was pure happenstance for Syms.
The chain has been searching for three years to find a suitable Baltimore-area location and twice was prone to purchase
property in other jurisdictions when zoning problems arose, Marcy Syms said. This store is the company's 28th in 18 markets.
Glen Burnie was chosen because the space was available.
"We really wanted to get into the Baltimore market," she said. "That was the overriding factor."
Robin Maisel, a real estate broker for CB Commercial in Baltimore, said several things have made Glen Burnie, in particular, attractive to discount retailers. They include the availability of low-cost land, the area's proximity to the Beltway, and the additional access to Governor Ritchie Highway created by the extension of Md. 10 as far south as Pasadena.
"Land is cheaper there, especially now that there's been a recession," she said. "People can go in and buy up large chunks."
It was Price Club that got the ball rolling for other major discounters.
Buying land off of Ordnance Road, near Ritchie Highway, Price Club built its own plaza in 1985. Price Club has leased other buildings in the plaza to Sports Authority, which opened in July of this year, and Home Depot, which debuted in June.
Leedmark, the hypermarket with European roots that combines food and general merchandise under one gigantic roof, opened in May.
The advent of such retailers has brought a welcome change to Glen Burnie, said Rosemary Duggins, Anne Arundel County's director of marketing for economic development.
"Its like going to an outlet mall," she said. "Now we have this cluster of stores and people go there to shop at that kind of store."
There is even some prestige in discount these days, Duggins said.
"What used to be very low end has now become a desirable niche to be in," she said. Syms, which Duggins called an "upscale discounter," may broaden that niche even further, she said.