Mall's role as place to meet is threatened

Hunt Valley center used by many for classes, recreation

February 07, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

In its 19 years, Hunt Valley Mall has become a community gathering place -- a spot where the local fire department could sell Christmas ornaments and where Girl Scout troops could hold sleep-overs.

Now, the pending sale of the struggling northern Baltimore County landmark brings uncertainty not only for the merchants who work there, but also for community groups and residents who go there to meet, play and learn.

At dawn each day, the mall walkers begin their workouts, chalking up a quarter-mile a lap. In the afternoons, new immigrants meet to learn English, and a Weight Watchers group gathers nearby.

A second-floor meeting room usually is occupied by community groups. Across the hall are Jazzercise classes and, in another space, senior citizens explore the possibilities of the Internet.

"When they started building the mall, we were up in arms," said Betty Driscoll, a north Baltimore County resident who stopped by Sears with her husband last week. "Then, when they were here, we said, `How did we live without it?' "

Last week, a Connecticut company that develops centers with large retail stores, such as Target and Home Depot, announced that it was negotiating to buy the mall. Although mall managers and the company, Starwood Ceruzzi, emphasized that the deal is not final, merchants were unnerved when a demolition contractor showed up, talking about plans to raze the mall and build large, individual stores.

The prospect of losing the mall at Hunt Valley elicits mixed feelings among north Baltimore County residents, who say they would miss the gathering place, while welcoming more shopping opportunities.

"It seems like its niche is going to be these bigger users," said Kathleen Beadell, immediate past president of the Greater Timonium Community Council. "But from a community stance, there are many people who are going to miss it."

The meeting room at the mall is especially important, providing space in which developers can discuss their projects and civic groups can gather, she said.

Typical of the groups using the room is the Baltimore County Police Private Security Association, which met there last week.

"This has been a good spot for us," said Frank Thayer, a member of the group, which represents security officers. "It has plenty of parking."

When the mall opened in 1981, it was a shopping destination for the region. But newer malls in Owings Mills and Towson lured away customers, and by the mid-1990s, more spaces were empty than full.

In recent years, mall managers had tried to fill the void by allowing nonprofit groups to occupy store space for free.

Literacy Works, a nonprofit group in charge of Baltimore County's adult literacy program, holds classes at the mall weekday afternoons, preparing students for General Educational Development exams, helping immigrants learn English and teaching adults how to use computers.

Helene Waranch, executive director of Literacy Works, said the mall is a good location for a literacy program because it provides a relaxed, informal setting. About 75 adults are enrolled in the classes at the mall and the program has a waiting list, she said.

Waranch said she is uncertain what will happen to the classes if the mall closes.

St. Joseph Medical Center and Towson University, which operate a community outreach center at the mall offering exercise classes, health education programs and a computer course for senior citizens, also are concerned about losing their space.

"It would be a blow to our program," said Margaret Masson, who directs the Senior Cybernet Project, a program at the center that is training volunteers to help the elderly use the Internet.

About 100 people participate in the aerobics and mall walking programs offered by the center, said Ellen Gorman. "We don't have any contingency plans," she said. "We are all kind of waiting to hear."

Although Towson Town Center and the Shops at Kenilworth offer mall walking programs, those locations are not as convenient for Cockeysville residents, she said.

Andrea Mann, who operates the Jazzercise franchise in one of the vacant store spaces, said the mall is accessible and convenient for her students.

"For me, it's just wonderful," she said. Most Jazzercise classes are held in church basements or fire halls, but at the mall she can hold 25 classes a week and offer individual training sessions. "I love having this dedicated facility," she said.

Light customer traffic at the mall works to her benefit, she said.

"I wouldn't want to be in a crowded space," she said. "You have to make it easy for people to come and go."

Even those who don't participate in organized mall activities say they would miss it.

"It's kind of an indoor playground," said Donna Steele of Cockeysville, as her 2-year-old son, Matthew, ran back and forth beside a fountain. "It's a good place for him to come and run around because there aren't that many people."

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