It sounds like another sad story of urban decay: Beautiful new mall opens in an inner-city neighborhood, flops and ends up as a flea market.
On the face of it, that's just what has happened at Mount Clare Junction, the $30 million shopping center that opened amid much ballyhoo on West Pratt Street in 1987. While its anchor Safeway store has thrived, within a year of the opening the enclosed mall part of the development had turned into what one disillusioned merchant described as a "morgue."
Shop after shop closed its doors over the next few years. The giant steam locomotive that dominated the center hallway was hauled away, and where it stood a North Carolina company called the Great American Market Place is putting the finishing touches on some 200 booths.
Tomorrow the mall that was once the bright, shining retail hope of West Baltimore will reopen as a flea market. How low can you go?
Wait just a minute there, says Jan Sugar. Don't tell Great American Market Place's project manager that this is a comedown or you'll getone angry Tarheel in your face.
"Comedown?" she says incredulously to someone who dares utter the word. "This is a come-up! Where there were 25 shops in here, now there will be 200 stores. How can that be a comedown?"
One way or another, Great American Market Place is a coming thing. Maybe it's a sign of the economic times, but the flea market business is jumping.
The Mount Clare Junction space is 95 percent leased for the opening, Ms. Sugar says.
Started in 1987 with a single flea market in a former furniture store in Fayetteville, N.C., the concept has grown to about a dozen markets in locations from Florida to New Jersey, says founder and President Earl Grant. Next year, he said, the company plans to open 30 to 35 more markets, and by the end of the decade Mr. Grant expects to have 500 markets operating all across the United States. Negotiations for another location in Maryland are going on now, he says.
(If a nationwide chain of flea markets sounds ludicrous, consider this: Cash America Investments, a fast-growing, 177-store pawn shop chain based in Texas, has $115 million a year in sales and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.)
To Mr. Grant, a flea market is a noble thing, an incubator for entrepreneurs, a place to nurture the great American dream. With its low costs and leases as brief as a single day, it's a place where the little guy can start a business without a lot of money, he says.
That's certainly the case for Raymond and Amy Fox of South Baltimore, who spent yesterday at Mount Clare Junction preparing to open their "Fox's Fabulous Finds" in a 9-by-15-foot space. For one month's rent of $368, plus $20 for a vendor's license, the Foxes have become business owners.
"I go up and pick up things off the street that other people throw away and fix them," says Mr. Fox, naming lamps, dishes, toasters and antiques as some of the treasures he has saved from the landfill. His wife will supplement the family income by making and selling crafts -- brooms, wind chimes, wicker chairs.
"I think we can make a pretty good living," Mr. Fox said. "We'd like to work up to a whole store."
Mr. Grant says such an aspiration isn't unrealistic; one entrepreneur who started at his Fayetteville store now has 16 locations, he says.
"It's a wonderful business. I love it," he says.
Mr. Grant intends his business to be different from the old-time flea market, with its seedy atmosphere and trashy merchandise. Among the businesses he cites as inspirations are Wal-Mart (for price), Nordstrom's (for service) and Disney World (for cleanliness and sense of fun).
"We do upscale markets," he says. "Flea markets are fun to shop when they are air-conditioned, heated and clean."
In many respects, Great American sounds as if it's singing out of the Wal-Mart/Nordstrom hymn book. "We love our vendors," gushes Ms. Sugar, and she reinforces the message with a hug as she greets snack stand operator Annette Cohen, who's wrestling with a last-minute decision whether to call her stand Tidbit Alley or Yum-Yum.
Vendors like Mrs. Cohen will receive support services not heard of at the typical flea market. It's a partnership, says Mr. Grant, adding that the merchants will be offered regular classes in selling techniques and customer relations.
Merchants will range from crafts dealers to jewelry shops to a beauty salon and a fortune-teller. The vendors will change frequently, says Mr. Grant, so the customer won't get bored and will never know what's going to be there next week.
The Mount Clare Junction site, which Great American is leasing from the mall's Tennessee-based owners, represents a departure for th company. It's Great American's first venture into XTC an inner city, and the red brick mall building -- widely praised for its design and compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood -- is hardly a typical flea market location. More common, Mr. Grant says, is a suburban building previously occupied by a K mart or a furniture store.
Where Mount Clare Junction's previous operator was criticized for failing to publicize the market well, Great American -- a subsidiary of Fayetteville-based U.S. Property Management -- plans to advertise aggressively, Ms. Sugar says. Radio, TV, print -- Great American will use them all, she adds.
One thing Great American will not be worrying about as it opens its doors at Mount Clare Junction is the U.S. economy. In fact, Mr. Grant acknowledges that the recession might have helped stimulate his company's growth as financially strapped middle-class shoppers have been forced to tighten their belts.
"When the economy's bad, that doesn't bother us," says Ms. Sugar. "When the economy's good, that only enhances us."