Mall is not a Microsoft, but adds economic punch


July 11, 1999|By Norris West

IF YOU WANT to grab the attention of economic development officers, don't talk about retail. Talk about the prospects of a technology firm coming to town.

It doesn't matter what kind of technology -- bio, information, nuclear. Technology with a suffix is even better.

Technology businesses bring good-paying jobs and put communities on the global economy map. Economic development officials covet these firms the way cities once craved new industrial plants.

Retail usually is at the other end of the spectrum. It is low priority to those responsible for building a community's business base because most of the jobs pay at the lower end of the scale, and retailers don't generate the desired synergy.

So why is the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Authority getting goosebumps over the prospect of 1.4 million square feet of retailing? It is so enthusiastic that you might think it was Microsoft -- not the Arundel Mills outlet mall -- coming to Hanover.

The Arundel Mills mall would cause some concern. It would compete with existing retailers for customers and jobs, it would use prime space that high-tech firms might find ideal, and few of the jobs there would require college degrees or pay well enough to support a family.

Environmental concerns

Moreover, environmentalists charge that the development would destroy wetlands on the 400-acre property near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Each of these concerns is legitimate, but may be outweighed by the positives.

Environmental activists invariably challenge projects that have such a major impact, but the mall's site is in a part of the county designated for growth. The county's general development plan reserves much of the southern part of Anne Arundel for farming and other open space.

The mall's developer, the Virginia-based Mills Corp., has worked with area community groups and says it has tried to be sensitive to environmental concerns. The Army Corps of Engineers' objective review of the plan should be instructive.

As for Arundel Mill's economic development punch, officials in and outside the county say the mall promises to be more than the typical retailing outlet. Arundel Mills' attraction of "shoppertainment" gives it an extra dimension that sets it apart, officials say.

"Traditionally, we don't do a lot of interaction with retail opportunity in the county," says William A. Badger, senior vice president of the county's economic development authority. "Traditionally, retail centers are on the low end of the scale. One thing that makes this project different and unique is that 30 to 40 percent of this mall will be made up of entertainment venues. Those entertainment venues generate an entertainment tax of 10 percent, which is revenue outside the tax cap."

This is an important consideration in a county that has voted to stunt the government's income growth with a limit -- which should be re-evaluated -- on how much revenue it can raise.

The Virginia-based Mills Corp., which is developing the mall, plans to attract fun business like a 50,000-square-foot skateboard park. Every admission to the park, other shoppertainment places and the planned 30-screen movie theater will generate entertainment tax dollars for the county.

The Mills Corp. markets its proposed mall as a worldwide attraction. It envisions air travelers hopping off planes at BWI and going directly there. The company's Potomac Mills outlet mall is the largest tourist attraction in Virginia.

Multiplier effect

The mall also will enable the county to keep more of its retailing dollars in Arundel, said an economic development official from a nearby county. This would create a multiplier effect -- cash passes through more hands and more businesses before it leaves the area.

There would be losers. Malls in other counties, such as the nearby Marley Station Mall and perhaps even the Mall in Columbia, could feel the impact.

But county economic development officials are convinced that Arundel Mills would have a far bigger upside that downside.

Although the area would not attract high technology businesses, Mr. Badger and Economic Development Authority President Rick Morgan believe that it would be a magnet for other commercial firms. The center can lure office buildings, hotels and, yes, even more retailing to the area.

Is Arundel Mills the best possible economic development move for the county? Probably not. The Economic Development Authority has to put more of its eggs in the high technology basket, which may not be as much fun, but can really put some fire into the economy and provide the quality of jobs that every community wants.

But the Disney, family-friendly quality of Arundel Mills could make the county an even bigger tourism attraction. It is not the kind of business venture Arundel should turn away.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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