'Center' of town is mall New services let malls reach out to their communities.

October 16, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

With the glitzy art and entertainment extravaganza marking the opening of the expanded Towson Town Center today, one thing is certain.

Almost all of the events -- from acrobats to puppets to laser shows -- are strictly entertainment designed to lure shoppers to the new facility. Such features have become part of mall culture, much the way organ grinders roamed town centers of yesteryear to fascinate adults and children alike.

One Towson Town Center event, however, may prove the exception. It was a $50-a-ticket fund-raiser to benefit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which drew more than 1,700 people to a preopening sneak preview of the mall last night.

Perhaps the largest such fund-raiser to occur at a Baltimore-area mall, the gala was an example of how shopping centers are turning increasingly to community-oriented events that do more than simply attract customers.

The mall as town center has gained momentum in recent years. Walking-for-health programs have become commonplace and food courts are popular gathering places for elderly and youth.

But also such things as baby-sitting and postal services, libraries, churches and even miniature city halls are springing up in regional malls across the country.

At Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore there are, among other programs, a city crisis center, Urban League office and social services annex.

Meanwhile, Eastpoint Mall in Eastpoint celebrates the completion of its $30 million renovation this week with not only an Elvis look-alike contest but also a fund-raiser for the Baltimore County Family Crisis Center.

It is not all philanthropy.

Concerned about profits and in the midst of a credit crunch, mall developers have turned increasingly inward to make existing malls more competitive. The result has been mammoth renovation projects -- the expansion of Towson Town Center cost $150 million -- and community outreach efforts.

"The public increasingly is expecting businesses to do more, to give something back to the community," says Don Pendley, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers [ICSC] in New York.

Pendley says that, just as there has been a decline in the number of new shopping centers, the number of community relations services being offered in malls is on the upswing.

"Developers are finding it more and more difficult to get financial backing for new shopping centers and as a result they are finding they need to build more links to the communities they are already in," Pendley says. "If you are not able to get financing, you need to strengthen the centers you have."

With that as a goal, marketing has become more than the art of selling anchor stores or announcing new tenant leases.

Carolyn Bodie, a spokeswoman for Towson Town Center, explains why last night's fund-raiser rather than the more traditional fashion show was chosen to kick off the reopening.

"Our goal is to position Towson Town Center to appeal to all members of the family, so to come out with a fashion event wouldn't reflect what we're about," she says. "This was a cause that crosses all economic levels and age groups. It's something people care about."

Other events this week at Towson Town have an art theme -- including a circus act featuring "living statues" and European marionettes. The theme reflects what publicists think is a major interest in the surrounding community.

Eastpoint Mall is so popular in its community that customers once stood four rows deep to watch tiles being laid in the new food court, one official says.

The highlight of Eastpoint's re-opening this week will be an Elvis impersonator.

Columbia Mall recently was the focal point of a fund-raising effort for the Columbia Foundation, assisting the group in raising $202,000 to benefit residents who use Howard County non-profit agencies and services.

Meanwhile, Owings Mills Mall will continue to sponsor its Halloween trick-or-treat program. Participating in what is billed as a safer alternative, children travel store to store for treats provided by the Owings Mills Merchants Association.

In addition, toys used in the Christmas display at Owings Mills Mall this year will be turned over to the Salvation Army to be given to poor families, says Robin Mosle group manager at Owings Mills.

Everything is community-oriented at Westview Mall near Catonsville, says mall manager Alan Fink. In addition to having a community booth that allows non-profit organizations to offer anything from blood-pressure tests to raffle tickets to pay for school band uniforms, the mall is actively repositioning itself as an off-price value center.

With a T.J. Maxx recently opened and a Marshalls coming in March, Fink says his organization is carefully "courting and romancing and reintroducing" the mall to immediate neighbors through a street-by-street mailing program.

The effort has reaped benefits, he says. In its first month of operation at Westview, T.J. Maxx saw its sales exceed expectations by 62 percent.

The 1991 Christmas season could prove another disaster for retailers. But with renovation funds pumping new life into existing shopping centers, mall officials see community relations as the latest evolution of the modern-day town center.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.