Mall hopes for takeoff in its 18th year

August 10, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE SIGN outside Hunt Valley Mall declared: "Ten Foot Sand Castle!" This was considered the compelling attraction of the day. But, in this time, in its 18th year of what seems like a continuous struggle for existence, it seemed a metaphor for the mall itself: a castle in the sand, standing in isolation as the human tide washes out.

"We're still a distress center," Hunt Valley's general manager, Fred Paine, admitted yesterday. "But we still think we can turn this thing around."

Once, Hunt Valley Mall had about 140 tenants and appeared to be part of that wave of air-conditioned shopping centers born to accommodate the ever-burgeoning migration to suburbia. Today, it has only 86 tenants, many of whose employees idle away their hours, listening to Muzak piped into the mall, buffing their fingernails and wondering how to stare down the boredom facing them until their shifts end.

There's a sense of loneliness here. Stand at the end of one walkway and whistle, and wait for the sound of it to echo back. And, 18 years after it opened its doors and seemed to usher in a glittery future, it is stunning and rather poignant to look at so much emptiness.

Also, it raises questions about the future of other malls struggling with increased competition. In a time when an estimated 500 to 1,000 U.S. shopping centers have been closed, what's the future around here?

In the past year, Hunt Valley has added a movieplex and a Wal-Mart, each intended to jump-start a sense of energy, each now deemed a success -- but neither of which has generated any spillover into the rest of the mall, which suffers from long stretches of former storefronts covered over, and the clear visual evidence that shoppers have simply found other places to spend their money.

"Actually, we did very well this morning," says a Hunt Valley cashier at The Pretzel Factory, standing by an empty counter and asked how business has been.

Around her, on the second floor of the mall, the walkway is vacant.

"This morning?" she is asked.

"From about 9 to 10," she says, "we sold a lot."

"People come to the mall just for the pretzels?"

"Oh, no," she explains. "It's employees from other stores in the mall. They're the ones who buy."

At the General Nutrition Center a few doors away, an employee says, "There's been a big jump in traffic. At the movies, and at the Wal-Mart. But the rest of us, there's been nothing. Nothing inside this whole mall."

"Lunchtime," says another mall employee. "That's when we get some pretty good traffic, when people come in for the food court."

This leads to one of the perplexing questions about this mall: With so many people surrounding it, so many office workers and so many residents with so much spendable income, why has Hunt Valley struggled for so long?

"Good question," says Paine, who runs the mall for Trammell Crow, the property management company hired by the Equitable Assurance Society, the New York-based owner of Hunt Valley Mall.

"The demographics around here are extremely strong," says Paine. "A lot of developers would give their eyeteeth for this market."

But he goes over the familiar history: the mall "a little premature" in its birth, predating much of the development that would follow; then the competition with Owings Mills and White Marsh malls and Towson Town Center and "the failure to differentiate ourselves from them."

That's part of it, but there are other developments: more people turning to cyberspace for shopping needs, or to catalogs, and some people's sense that suburban malls have simply reached their saturation point.

"I don't think so," says Paine. "They're still a place for people to get together, to be entertained. We still think it will happen here."

He's waiting for the go-ahead from Equitable Assurance for "phase two" of Hunt Valley's "re-merchandising." Phase one was the addition of the movies and the Wal-Mart. Phase two is the addition of bargain-priced stores, which appeal to tighter wallets and would also distinguish Hunt Valley from more upscale malls.

"We're hopeful of getting the go-ahead in the next few months," says Paine. "We feel like we're on the space shuttle, waiting for takeoff."

When Hunt Valley opened its doors, who imagined an 18-year wait for takeoff? For that matter, who imagined any shakiness in the shopping malls, whose future seemed endlessly prosperous in the suburban boom?

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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