Harford retail poised for luxurious growth

Development: Several county locations are attracting investors' attention as likely sites of upscale dining and retail.

October 27, 2002|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For years, the big shopping news on U.S. 1 in Harford County has been car buying. Some might even say it has been the only news.

This past year alone has seen the expansion or relocation of several giant dealerships, including Cook Volkswagen and Jones Junction, giving U.S. 1 from Fallston to Benson the appearance of a giant parking lot.

Retail shopping on Route 24, one of the county's other major thoroughfares, isn't much different. While it offers an abundance of low- to moderately priced chain stores, including Target, Sears, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Kohl's, along with moderately priced chain restaurants, consumers seeking a high-end shopping experience still have to travel at least thirty minutes.

That all may change in the next few years, said Joseph Kocy, county director of planning and zoning.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook since the 2000 census income data was released," Kocy said.

"Realtors from all over suddenly said, `Holy mackerel! It's not a backwater anymore!' When they saw the high income levels here, they realized there is money and that we are a viable market with disposable income."

Kocy thinks major retailers might be pleasantly surprised with a U.S. 1 or Route 24 location. "New malls are dead at the moment. They're very expensive to construct and maintain," Kocy said. "The wave of the future is a Main Street concept with mixed uses, including retail in the front and residential in the back."

Kocy predicted that Baltimore-area developers Greenebaum and Rose, who just purchased one of the last major undeveloped sites on U.S. 1, will incorporate those elements into the center they are planning, subtly changing the look and feel of the highway.

Not far from that site, a new housing development is planned for the old Fallston General Hospital site, potentially bringing hundreds of high-income residents to the area. Those people, Kocy said, will want accessible shopping, dining and entertainment.

One of the places they find it could be in the redeveloped Fallston Mall.

Long troubled by poor access to and from U.S. 1 and Route 152 -- despite its prime location at the intersection of those roads -- Fallston Mall was recently purchased by developers who are planning a multimillion-dollar renovation of the complex. Plans haven't been finalized, but Kocy said the new owners are talking to high-end retailers that previously had not expressed an interest in Harford County.

Other areas receiving heightened investor interest include the stretch of U.S. 1 in Hickory, where a new bypass has improved traffic patterns, and the U.S. 40 corridor around Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

Redevelopment opportunities exist in both locations.

"There's great interest in the abandoned Ames shopping center near the Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace," said Tom Sadowski, Harford's director of development.

He added that Bulle Rock is building luxury homes overlooking the award-winning golf course and is hoping to attract upscale owners who will want exclusive shopping opportunities nearby.

The success of the recently opened Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen also has drawn the notice of investors, and Sadowski is confident that Harford County is ripe for upscale dining and shopping experiences.

"The value of Harford County is finally being seen by the outside community. We're catching up with the rest of the region because standards demand that and because there are terrific opportunities here," Sadowski said.

Judy Sanders, general manager of Harford Mall on U.S. 1, agrees.

"Our stores are upgrading," Sanders said, noting recently completed large-scale renovations at Hecht's department store.

"Revitalization is happening. We have been growing immensely. Our customers are looking for an edgier trend, and the stores are finally responding."

Plans are under way for a Limited II store in Harford Mall, joining fairly recent arrivals Old Navy, the Gap and Sears.

Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust, which owns Harford Mall, recently acquired Greenbriar Shopping Center on Route 22 in Bel Air and plans to develop its last remaining site.

With trends this hot, Harford's shopping market is only likely to improve. There might even be a Ferrari dealership next to a Nordstrom's in Harford one day.

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