Mall tenants pin hopes on new landlord

Carroll retail center hurt by low traffic and drooping sales

March 11, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Outside the Treat Shop in Westminster's Cranberry Mall is a talking, whirling, flashing gumball machine that tries to catch the attention of passing shoppers. "Is there anybody out theeere?" the dispenser wails.

More often than not, the answer in Carroll County's largest mall is "no."

The mall's merchants now have to place their hopes on the tentative sale of the 525,000-square-foot complex at Route 140 and Route 27, a transaction negotiated in such secrecy that merchants have not yet been formally notified and the mall's New York-based owners won't disclose the closing date of the sale.

"We're so excited because it can't be worse -- it has to be an improvement," said Pat Hendren, whose sales at Raimondi's Florist have wilted as stores around her have closed. "The poor mall has just been sitting there; it's just been stagnant for a while. Nobody has had the authority to do anything -- so we're all just so hopeful."

Shopco Regional Malls, which has owned the shopping center since 1988, has tentatively agreed to sell it for $33.5 million to Cranberry Properties MM Corp., which is identified in federal Securities and Exchange Commission documents as a subsidiary of Phoenix Four, a property group licensed in the Bahamas.

Michael T. Marron of Shopco said the sale will be made final "in the near future, barring any unforeseen circumstances." Asked whether that meant days or weeks, Marron said, "I'm not sure I'm at liberty to comment. There could be some contractual obligations that prevent me from disclosing things to third parties."

Merchants at the mall have been swapping stories all week about the transaction with their customers and speculating about the shopping center's future. "To be honest, the mall needs a little help," said Joe Selby, an assistant manager at RadioShack.

RadioShack is surrounded by empty storefronts: Two darkened stores on one side, three on the other and two across the way. But Selby said the store does not lack for customers.

"This place gets so crowded we can't move in here," he said, adding that six to eight customers are usually waiting for him when he raises the gate in the morning. "But with new owners and new businesses, we're hoping we could get eight to 12 people waiting for us."

Other merchants have not fared as well.

"I used to look out at the food court and all the tables would be full," said Greg Olson, who has been at Sterling Optical's Cranberry Mall franchise for 11 years. "Now I can look out there now and count all the people on one hand."

"It's been tough," said Trevis Alban, who owns the Treat Shop candy store. "My business relies highly on foot traffic, and when the traffic level's low, there you have my business level as well."

The mall's largest anchor position remains empty, nearly two years after department store Caldor left the location.

The mall also is threatened by encroaching competition from strip centers and retail stores, as well as from four large malls -- Hunt Valley Mall, Carrolltown Mall, Owings Mills Mall and North Hanover Mall -- all within 30 miles of Westminster.

Cranberry's retail sales have dipped, to $19 million in the first eight months of last year from $20.4 million during the same period in 1998, SEC documents show. In that time, occupancy slipped from 81 percent to 75 percent.

Although malls across the country experience turnover, economic development officials and retail consultants said a strong mall can replace tenants as quickly as they leave.

"Malls that have been out for about 15 years reach a saturation rate of their ability to bring shoppers in and keep them," said R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of Greater Westminster Development Corp. "They need reinvestment and in many cases physical changes inside the mall to make it exciting again. That's what the shopper's looking for today -- convenience and quality experience.

"We know the demographics are good here," Mathias said. "People are moving in and incomes are rising. The economic factors are here to support the mall. A new buyer would find a very good situation with good consumers with disposable income to spend on services and apparel."

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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