Dave Cool said one of the hardest decisions of his life was resolving to support the megamall Arundel Mills in his community.
"Do we leave the trees here? Do we have the mall?" said Cool, of Elkridge. "It was painful."
But Cool, a stay-at-home dad, said the realization that the mall, the largest in Maryland, would bring thousands of jobs to his community factored heavily in his decision.
Yesterday, Cool was celebrating the development with community members and elected officials from Anne Arundel County who got a sneak preview of the 1.6 million-square-foot shopping center during a community appreciation party. Entertained by clowns, singers and dancers, residents strolled the mall and plotted what stores they would hit once it opens Friday off Route 100 in Hanover.
Dennis Connolly, a vice president and senior development director for Mills Corp., which built the mall, said the company invited about 2,500 community members so they could see the result of the hard work during the past few years.
"We've put them through a lot. We've asked a lot of the community," he said. "This is an opportunity to show our appreciation ahead of time."
Cool knows that's true. In the northern Anne Arundel communities surrounding the mall, the complex caused "a hard-fought battle that hinged on jobs," he said.
And in the end, community activists say, about 300 people from neighborhoods around the mall have secured retail jobs. Cool helped many of those residents apply for jobs.
"I knew this was the best opportunity," he said. "We'd never ever again get the opportunity to have [thousands] of jobs in one place."
Other community members anticipate the mall - which includes 200 stores, restaurants and entertainment venues and expects to attract more than 17 million visitors annually - will be an asset.
Gloria Mollman of Hanover called the mall "progress" for the community.
"I can't wait until it opens," said Mollman, who said she plans to shop at the toy stores for her grandchildren. "It's right in our back door."
Zelda Eldridge of Severn said she's been waiting for a large mall to come to the community so she doesn't have to drive as far to shop.
"The shoe stores, the children's clothes, the eateries - I love everything about it," she said.
Christy Ward of Odenton said she plans to do her holiday shopping at the mall.
"I like how the stores are really big and spacious," she said.
As the hundreds of community members who came by midafternoon marveled at the size of the mall, store employees stocked shelves with merchandise. Signs hanging from the ceiling reminded, "5 days until grand opening."
Connolly said the Mills Corp., based in Arlington, Va., has held similar events for each of the 15 other malls it has opened so community members can see the complex before the crowds.
"Every place we go, we work closely with the community," he said. "We try very hard to include them in the opening."
He said the mall's tenants, which include OFF 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet, Liz Claiborne Shoe Outlet, Bed Bath & Beyond and Old Navy, should be ready by Friday's opening.
"Fingers crossed," he said, "we're running very smoothly."