Wedding bells at the food court New 'town squares': From senior 'powerwalks' to traveling shows, malls fill broad role.

August 29, 1996

ONCE, people went to shopping malls to buy clothes, books and many other things. But these retail complexes have evolved from mere shopping meccas into community centers.

All sorts of non-shopping activities have become part of the mall experience. They range from senior citizens who show up in squads to take their morning stroll in air-conditioned splendor to teen-agers who congregate at night and weekends in search of some action.

A recent story in The Sun about Charlotte Davis and Jeff Rogers offered more evidence of this transformation of regional malls. In trying to decide where to get married, the couple could come up with no more appropriate ceremonial setting than the Annapolis Mall, where they had met and courted for years. Neither was very religious, and they concluded that the courthouse wasn't festive enough. (Ironically, the firm proposing a mammoth $585 million American Dream mall in Silver Spring included a 75-seat wedding chapel in its giant mall in Edmonton, Canada.) Explained the new Mrs. Rogers: "The mall is just such a part of our lives."

Anne Arundel Community College came to the same conclusion in its search for new enrollees. It has operated a kiosk inside the Annapolis Mall since 1994 that is credited with recruiting nearly 400 students.

As suburbia has grown, regional malls have become the modern equivalent of the town square. The Columbia-based Rouse Co., for example, has designed common spaces in its six-dozen malls as "a place to be." When Walt Disney Co. last spring wanted to promote its animated film, "Pocahontas," it toured the country with life-sized models of several of the movie's scenes, often making stops at indoor malls such as Columbia's to entice audiences.

While malls have assumed some of the functions of the old town commons, they are hardly exact replicas. Few malls, for example, allow politicians unfettered access to campaign. Protests are not allowed. Political activity is mostly limited to voter registration. Even bell-ringing collectors for the Salvation Army sometimes get chased from these controlled environs.

But owners of regional malls are confident that as long as they grow in their role as the social center, enclosed shopping centers will continue to be strong in the marketplace, too.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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