Mall stages a comeback Jobs: Hunt Valley Mall is being rejuvenated by the prospect of 3,000 new jobs from a nearby MBNA regional center, a discount marketing strategy and a light-rail station.

March 03, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

After years of struggling, Hunt Valley Mall appears on the brink of a comeback.

The sprawling retail complex could finally see the kind of success first envisioned when it opened 16 years ago, thanks to three unrelated, but simultaneous, factors: the influx of thousands of new workers moving in across the street; the extension of light rail bringing shoppers by June; and the repositioning of the mall itself this year.

The half-leased mall, which since the mid-1980s has slowly lost stores, shoppers and anchor Macy's, has been planning to reinvent itself as a community hub and off-price center with new stores, restaurants and a 14-screen movie theater.

But last week, the mall got an unexpected boost. Credit-card giant MBNA Corp. announced that it would establish its mid-Atlantic regional headquarters in an eight-story corporate office complex now owned by PHH Corp. across Shawan Road from the mall. That means the arrival over the next few years of 3,000 new employees -- all potential consumers in the eyes of merchants, mall managers and retail analysts.

"You couldn't ask for better timing. That will have a major effect on the center, having 3,000 people working nearby," said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group in Lutherville,, a national retail consulting firm. "Business generates jobs, dollars, income and disposable income. People shop places closest to where they work and live."

Merchants, many of whom have weathered the mall's ups and downs, say they think their time has finally come.

"The people who stuck it out here are going to have a gold mine," said Barbara Steffens, of the Jade Gallery.

Mimi Arbabi felt so confident about the mall's prospects that she opened Gem Boutique, a jewelry store, in April after others had written off the mall's future.

"In the '90s people look for value," she said. "Turning this into a value mall will bring people."

News that MBNA will start hiring by April further confirmed her feelings.

"That was good news we heard," she said, noting that employees will likely stop in for lunch and after work as local business people do now. "We're planning on staying. With all the new plans for the mall, things are going to change for the better. It's going to have a good future."

The MBNA announcement has not altered plans for a discount-oriented mall, said Howard S. Biel, a partner with Faison Group of Charlotte, N.C., the mall's manager, re-developer and leasing agent. The credit-card company's decision comes about two years after the mall managers began planning to redesign and expand with a mix of value- and entertainment-oriented tenants, Biel said.

The mall, which had thrived after opening amid controversy over its location in 1981, failed in later years to compete with Owings Mills Mall, which opened in 1986, and Towson Town Center, which expanded in 1991. Now anchored by Sears, the mall has a mix of well-known chains and independent merchants.

In its next incarnation, Hunt Valley will include many of the current stores as well as off-price stores, specialty stores and another department store, Biel said. By June, the state expects to finish extending light rail from Timonium to the edge of the mall's current parking lot, with four stops at office complexes in between.

"We're obviously tickled with the reports of new offices for MBNA across the street," Biel said. "The MBNA news has not impacted the direction of activity. It's just sweetened the potentiality. There will be a close synergy between the office environment and the shopping environment, heightened by the light rail."

Mall owner Equitable Life Assurance Society is said to have letters of intent from several retailers and to be awaiting final word on financing the expansion. Saks Off 5th, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Talbot's, Stein Mart and the Home Place are thought to be likely new merchants.

Outback Steakhouse Inc., of Tampa, Fla., said it will open a free-standing restaurant connected to a Carrabba's Italian Grill by late fall at the corner of Shawan and McCormick roads. Outback is the nation's largest casual dining steakhouse chain with 378 restaurants -- including those in Bel Air, Annapolis, Perry Hall and Ellicott City.

Biel declined to comment on negotiations with potential tenants, nor would he discuss plans or timing of the expansion of existing mall space, saying only, "We hope to open at least some of the uses this year."

Mall managers are working to accommodate existing retailers, in some cases by relocating them within the mall, he said.

Nakiah Saunders, assistant manager of the Dollar Tree, said the store will stay at the mall and possibly expand.

But even before the first new tenant moves in, the mall hopes to become a neighborhood social center, a concept with greater potential given the newly announced influx of employees, said Beth Lucca, marketing director.

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