Mall tries to attract new anchors Three high-end stores wanted to increase its competitive base

Nordstrom mentioned

More restaurants, addition for smaller merchants planned

July 15, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The Mall in Columbia -- designed to be the planned community's downtown hub -- is trying to make itself more competitive by courting as many as three high-end department stores.

Officers at the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer and owner of the mall and about 70 others nationwide, say they'd like to add the new "anchor" stores as part of an entire mall renovation.

They're also planning to build a 100,000-square-foot addition for smaller merchants and to bring in more restaurants.

Rouse officers would not specify the prospective high-end anchors -- though Nordstrom has been rumored as one. Company officials also would not say when the stores might be coming or when renovations would start.

This lack of specifics gives rise to skepticism among some of the mall's smaller merchants.

For years, they've heard similar promises -- while waiting for the arrival of big, high-end retailers to draw shoppers.

"They say they're talking to major retailers, major department stores. They've been saying that for nine years," says Ed Ward, an owner of Columbia Camera, which is closing at the end of the month.

The tension over the 25-year-old mall's plans and its realities underscores a key dilemma that is shared with many other U.S. malls.

Malls everywhere are fighting over a limited number of high-end anchors to draw shoppers as they battle increasingly stiff competition from each other, from newer "big-box" retail centers and from catalog shopping.

For years, The Mall in Columbia enjoyed a kind of captive market as the first and only large retailing center in a rapidly growing, relatively wealthy new town.

But now, at least one of its merchants has been defeated by competitive pressures from new "power" centers.

At the Columbia Camera store, Ward, whose business is an original tenant, says he could not compete with such big retailers as Best Buy and Service Merchandise.

Those megastores -- some being developed by Rouse -- are springing up in "power centers" in and around Columbia. They include Snowden Square, off Snowden River Parkway; Columbia Crossing, being built off Route 175; and Long Gate, under construction off Route 103.

To complicate the situation, The Mall in Columbia has a particular identity problem: It sits in the middle of an affluent community but conspicuously lacks a high-end department store.

"My husband and I are able to spend money. Most of our friends are," says Columbia resident Diane Batchik, sitting on bench in the poorly air-conditioned second floor of the mall recently. "We just don't do it here."

Batchik says she spends "thousands of dollars" in malls outside Columbia, particularly Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. "Columbia is very well off," Batchik says. "But this mall doesn't show it. I think it needs a major face lift."

Rouse officials acknowledge they need to draw more high-end shoppers.

"We realize that one of the areas we are weak in is high-end fashion, particularly women's," says Linda T. Lo Cascio, in charge of expansion plans for Rouse. "Obviously, J. C. Penney doesn't address the high-end fashion. I do believe there are Columbia shoppers who leave Columbia to shop at Nordstrom."

She hopes to draw some of them next year, when an Ann Taylor store moves to an interior space.

Ward and some other Columbia mall merchants say that, in such a retail environment, Rouse should lower its rents.

But Rouse officials say their rents are fair and that tenant-landlord tensions are typical in retail. They also point to the healthy crowds walking daily through the mall. "It's a darn good mall," Lo Cascio says. "It's busy."

Still, Lo Cascio says she doesn't blame the small merchants for their skepticism about expansion plans.

"I appreciate their frustrations," she says. "But we're moving as fast as we can. These are very long courtships [with major retailers]. It's almost like getting married. It's not something you can do overnight."

Lo Cascio would not comment on negotiations with prospective anchors, including any with Nordstrom. Nordstrom officials also would not comment.

Industry watchers predict varying outcomes for these negotiations.

"I'm confident that Rouse is close," says David Ward, a retail broker with Hicks & Rotner Associates in Chevy Chase. "I think the key to the puzzle is the Nordstrom deal. If they come, the other guys will fall in line."

By other guys, Ward means such stores as J. Crew clothiers.

But Joe Burke, a mortgage banker with Legg Mason Real Estate services, says Nordstrom probably has enough stores in the area -- with stores in Montgomery County, Towson and Annapolis.

"My guess is you're not going to see them there [in Columbia] anytime soon," Burke says.

Sonja Sanders, the mall's manager of sales and marketing, insists: "We're definitely going to get the anchors, and we're definitely going to do the renovation."

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