Hunt Valley companies rebounding, but mall's recovery lags

June 04, 1995|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

The recession and federal defense cuts struck a severe blow to Hunt Valley, the minicity in northern Baltimore County where thousands of people work, eat or shop. Macy's closed, $l Westinghouse Corp. laid off hundreds of employees and many smaller businesses cut back or vanished.

Now, the healing has begun.

Office vacancy rates have fallen, earnings at Hunt Valley companies have rebounded, and with the light rail extension expected there by 1997, corporate leaders say the business park is poised for prosperity.

But recovery has been slower across Shawan Road at Hunt Valley Mall, where managers have been unable to fill the anchor location vacated by Macy's three years ago. There's talk of a change in marketing strategy and a multimillion-dollar renovation, of a 10-screen movie theater and a major discount store, but no deals have been signed.

"It's going to happen," mall manager Ken Kitlas promises. "We're starting to turn the corner."

Disparities between Hunt Valley's business park and its mall have been evident from the start.

When a subsidiary of McCormick & Co. laid out the industrial park in 1962, it won the whole-hearted endorsement of county officials. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. was the first to open an office there; McCormick moved its headquarters from the city in 1964. Becton Dickinson, Western Electric, Westinghouse, General Register and Meinecke soon followed.

Today, more than 35,000 people work in the Hunt Valley business park. And despite the rivalry from centers in Owings Mills and White Marsh, Hunt Valley remains one of the county's premier office and industrial parks.

"Hunt Valley is a true employment area," says Andrea Van Arsdale, a division chief of strategic planning in the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning. "It has been important and will remain important."

Across Shawan Road, however, Hunt Valley Mall always has struggled. It took a court order to overrule the county Planning Board's opposition to the 83-acre mall in 1979. When it opened in September 1981 -- a month after the White Marsh Mall and the expansion of Columbia Mall -- 75 percent of its shops were empty. Today, the mall, designed for 169 stores, has 100. False walls hide the empty spaces, but there's no hiding the fact that the mall has no anchor on its east side.

Kravco Co., the mall's manager, has reportedly tried to entice a ++ Target discount store into the first floor of Macy's old department store space, and rumors have circulated about a sporting goods store destined for the store's second floor.

Mr. Kitlas says Hunt Valley Mall has languished because development in the northern end of the county never occurred. The mall is at the tip of the county's urban development area -- to the north and west, land is zoned for agriculture and large-lot developments. Prospects for growth are limited.

"All of the development has gone on in the Towson, White Marsh and Owings Mills areas," Mr. Kitlas says.

Still, Lewis Gantman, executive vice president at Kravco, is convinced the population and road access can support the mall. Kravco and the owners, he says, have decided to differentiate Hunt Valley Mall from competitors in Towson and White Marsh, but declined to be more specific.

Owners of the Turtle Bay Grill, which opened this spring, are confident that business will increase soon. "I feel that the demographics are right for a restaurant like this," says co-owner Michael Lang.

He says he and his partner moved into the mall because they were able to obtain a liquor license there, the rents were reasonable, and he saw the need for a restaurant in the area.

HTC "We used to work out here, and we could never find a place to eat lunch," Mr. Lang says.

"It's just a matter of time," says Michael Wingard, owner of Coffee, Tea & Thee, a gourmet coffee shop that has been in the mall for seven years. This spring he has noticed an increase in business, he says.

The Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, across the street, also has seen a marked improvement from last year, says Rory Loberg, the hotel's general manager.

The Marriott's owner, Prudential Insurance Group, which has tried for four years to sell it, at last has found a buyer. Davidson Hotel Corp. of Memphis is scheduled to complete the deal this month.

Mr. Loberg says the hotel's convention and catering businesses have increased, and he notes that some companies in the business park are booking more rooms for visitors. Meanwhile, the hotel management is hoping the county will approve plans for a golf course community nearby, on Hayfields farm.Everyone seems to agree that the business park is quickly recovering from the dark period when Westinghouse reorganized and vacated three buildings with a total of 360,000 square feet of space.

At that time, the office vacancy rate reached 25 percent.

Today, office vacancy rates have fallen to a respectable 11 percent, and the industrial vacancy rate is 9 percent, according to Bethesda-based Realty Information Group.

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