Customers want access to shopping improved Developer asks for exit to Route 27 in Mount Airy

August 14, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Faced with vacant stores and declining sales at Mount Airy Shopping Center on Route 27, new owner Gary Rappaport is asking the State Highway Administration to reopen two-way access to the road.

Dual access to the highway is the only way to revitalize the 22-year-old center, he said. Shoppers can enter from Route 27, but cannot leave by the same route. They must exit on Ridgeville Boulevard, which many have called a dangerous crossing.

Rappaport has won the support of merchants and shoppers, and in less than a month has collected 1,200 signatures to prove his point.

"Merchants have been going crazy ever since SHA messed up the access," said Catherine Ditman, a frequent shopper who signed the petition. "Redoing it will bring more customers. People really want to shop at a place that is easy to get into and out of."

About a decade ago, the state closed the exit to Route 27 and forced all departing traffic onto Ridgeville Boulevard.

"The exit is a bottleneck and a sore spot that discourages people from coming here," said Chester Maleski, owner of Heidi's Gift Shop, an 18-year tenant of the center. "People can get in, but they can't get out.

"All we needed was a light on the highway, but instead, they closed the intersection to exiting traffic," said Maleski. "Ever since then, our business has gone downhill."

The Vienna, Va., developer has to convince the SHA of the need for improvements along Route 27. Safety concerns forced the state to close the exit onto the highway and spend $100,000 to build a one-way access road to the center.

"We value community input, but we also have to look at engineering and safety aspects for everything we do along the highway," said Valerie Burnett-Edgar, spokeswoman for the highway administration.

The town has hired a consultant to conduct a traffic study of roads surrounding the center. Rappaport also has had two traffic studies prepared, both of which found no negative impact if additional access was allowed. The studies have been forwarded to the state. State officials will review the results as they weigh a decision, said Burnett-Edgar.

"With or without the petition, we will work with the town and evaluate its needs," she said. "Our engineers may find another solution that no one has yet thought of."

Mayor Gerald R. Johnson said he favors reopening the access. He hopes to work with the state to ease problems at the center.

"It is more feasible to develop this property, and it is in the town's interest," Johnson said.

Improving the access could make the property more attractive to a retailer such as Wal-Mart, which has expressed interest in building an outlet on a 14-acre parcel adjoining the center.

Ditman has founded Us Against the Wal to thwart the retailer's efforts to enter the Mount Airy market. But she supports efforts to improve the center.

"Our organization is for improving the center to save it," Ditman XTC said. "The owner can't get tenants to stay. If he fixes the roads, it will be used. But we still don't need a big-box retailer."

The push for road improvements has nothing to do with Wal-Mart, said Sheryl H. Simeck, marketing director for Rappaport Management Co. About 20 percent of the space is vacant and several tenants are considering moving.

"The center is doing poorly and Safeway [its anchor tenant] is doing poorly," Simeck said. "We have to improve traffic flow."

Improvements would make the center more attractive to prospective tenants and investors who could finance more renovations, she said.

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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