Arundel Mills is a big hit

Birthday: Just 1 year old, the mall near Baltimore-Washington International Airport is a big, healthy baby already cooed over by 14 million visitors.

November 11, 2001|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

For the moment, sitting inside the giant pinball machine at Arundel Mills, Catherine Jeremenko's three little boys were neither bored nor cranky. Oblivious to their surroundings in the court of a shopping mall, they watched lights flash and huge balls roll through chutes overhead.

That was just fine with Jeremenko, a Catonsville mother of six who has found herself at the Hanover mega-mall more and more since it opened a year ago. She still shops at the Mall at Columbia and Marley Station in Glen Burnie. But when she wants to occupy the kids and bargain hunt for clothes at the Children's Place or Carter's outlet, she heads for Maryland's newest, largest mall.

In its first year, the 1.4 million-square-foot Arundel Mills has proved a powerful draw for shoppers, luring them with a mix of brand-name outlets and themed eateries, movies and virtual games. About 14 million shoppers have visited since Nov. 17. And the center is expected to easily reach the 18 million to 20 million visitors projected by the third year.

"It's exciting for the kids," Jeremenko said on a recent weekday as her 5-year-old son hopped over a floor painted like the bottom of a pinball machine. "They love this silly stuff."

So, it seems, do the adults. On weekends, patrons line up for restaurants like the high-energy Hibachi Grill, where chefs toss rice and shrimp into diners' mouths. Moviegoers jam the Egyptian-themed megaplex theater. Busloads of tourists - 1,000 buses so far - roll in during the week from Pennsylvania, Virginia and throughout Maryland.

All the activity has meant stronger-than-expected sales for some merchants, including some of the biggest anchors. And developers, too, are rushing to cash in - building stores, restaurants, hotels, offices and apartments on the periphery of the mall's 105-acre site near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"Arundel Mills at year one is right on target, pretty much where we'd hoped it would be," said David Fick, a managing director of Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. in Baltimore who follows Arundel Mills' developer, the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va.

Fick estimates that sales at the 225-store center have averaged $350 to $375 per square foot and will eventually reach $400, above average for regional malls. "It opened with a few more holes than the typical Mills project, but it opened well. Occupancy [now at 90 percent] is building. We think by this time next year, the project will be fully occupied."

The mall's tenant mix could use some tweaking, however, Fick believes. The center needs more fashion-oriented apparel stores, a key one being Polo Ralph Lauren, he said.

"Eventually, they'll get them," he predicts.

The project is on track to deliver the promised $72 million in annual economic activity for Anne Arundel County, including about 3,200 jobs, with another 3,000 expected, a 31 percent boost in entertainment tax in the first quarter, new roads and the creation of a top tourist destination, said William A. Badger Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp.

The county sold $28 million in revenue bonds to pay for infrastructure, mainly roads to accommodate traffic. Assessed at nearly $180 million, the mall paid $1.88 million in annual property tax. Mills officials estimate that their project has generated between $10 million and $20 million in state sales tax receipts.

`A positive addition'

"Pretty much, Mills has fulfilled its promise of what it promised to deliver for the county," Badger said. "This county needs the commercial tax base. So this has been a positive addition to our business community. Mills has been a good partner to work with."

Even as retailers nationwide are reeling from a post-Sept. 11 sales slump amid forecasts for a weak holiday season, Mills officials retain a bright outlook.

"During the last recession, in the early '90s, when other retailers were having their problems, our projects did extraordinarily well," said Laurence C. Siegel, Mills Corp. chairman and chief executive officer.

Mills Corp., which coined the term "shoppertainment," does not release its sales by center. But Arundel's first year has been one of the strongest first years in the company's national portfolio of a dozen centers, which includes Potomac Mills in Northern Virginia, Siegel said. He compares Arundel's opening to the 1996 opening of Ontario Mills in California, which draws more visitors than Disneyland and boasts average sales of $400 per square foot.

"Arundel will be at least as good, if not better," than Ontario Mills, because of the demographics - higher incomes and a larger population within 10 miles of the site, Siegel said. "The Baltimore-Washington corridor has potential for growth because of that. The only thing wrong with having Potomac Mills and Arundel Mills in the Washington area is we don't have a third one."

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