Joppatowne Plaza's future raises concern in community

It is key to revitalization, shop owners, officials say

January 26, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Retired commercial project manager Jim Petnic remembers four decades ago in Joppatowne -- the community he helped build -- when young mothers with baby strollers walked from their new homes to the bustling plaza built to accommodate their shopping needs at Joppa Farm Road and U.S. 40.

Today, some of those women's children have come back to raise their families, but these second-generation residents, along with many in the community, often bypass Joppatowne Plaza on their way to shop elsewhere.

The grocery store has been empty for a couple of years. The center's other anchor store, Kmart, recently announced it would close under its bankrupt parent corporation's reorganization.

Residents are frustrated by this latest news, which many fear will cause a domino effect in the shopping center that also has a dozen small businesses tucked between the two big stores.

"The threat of Kmart closing looms over our heads," said Carolyn Hicks, who lives in nearby Joppa, the rural counterpart to Joppatowne. "It's a real shame because they had a lot of nice amenities, not only for Joppatowne but also for surrounding communities."

The plaza has become a symbol of the slide of older communities along the 19 miles of U.S. 40 in Harford County -- and the wave of renewal that Joppatowne and its "Route 40 corridor" neighbors hope to ride, powered by a county government eager to renew the area, by the work of community-based planning councils and by offers of state tax incentives to encourage investment.

A gateway

The plaza, a gateway to the community built along Joppa Farm Road in the southwest corner of the county, is a key part of that renewal, said Petnic, who moved here in 1965 and worked as a project manager for Leon Panitz, Joppatowne's developer.

But before it can lead a resurgence, the shopping center must be stabilized.

"Just go look at the shopping center. It just continues going down and down," said County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents the Joppa-Joppatowne area. "It's certainly not helping the community."

Fourteen businesses occupy the nondescript plaza, including pizza and fast-food restaurants, a liquor store, a dollar store, a bank, a dental office and a hair salon. As U.S. 40 strip centers go, it's squat and old but more vibrant than some up the road near Edgewood and Havre de Grace that stand largely empty.

J. Thomas Sadowski, director of the county Office of Economic Development, called the center "a great opportunity" despite its graying edges because it is Joppatowne's hub. "I think you have a very stable community, a very viable community," he said.

Joppatowne was designed four decades ago, at a time when the Croftons and Columbias of nearby counties were coming along. The original townhomes and apartments cozy up with newer single-family homes and even luxury waterfront homes. In 2000, according to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, 14,206 people called the Joppa-Joppatowne area home. The median household income was $54,180.

"You've got the little working guy, up to the professional," said Rudy Sorrentino, owner of Rudolph's Family Hair Care in Joppatowne Plaza, who, after more than three decades in the center, is the oldest tenant in the plaza. "It's a very unique little town."

Sadowski said he is "very encouraged" by a meeting this month with Cordish Co., the Baltimore-based owner of the plaza, who offered ideas for the next year to 18 months that include negotiations with a grocery store chain and with Kmart, to try to keep the store open.

Cordish Co. officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

Feedback wanted

And that's another thing that concerns some community residents and businesses. They want to hear from Cordish officials about what the future holds for Joppatowne Plaza. They want to know how much longer they will have to drive to Edgewood to buy groceries.

And the small business owners wonder how much longer they will enjoy the walk-in traffic that the Kmart offers. They already felt the pinch when the Superfresh market left three years ago.

Sorrentino expects to lose about 20 percent of his business if Kmart closes its doors. He doubts a grocery store will want to come if the Big K closes. And he hears rumors that some of his shop neighbors won't stick around, either.

"When you start losing the anchor stores, the small businesses start jumping out," he said. "We kind of feed each other. You break the chain, and you've got a problem."

The air of anxiety hanging over the center creeps into the community, too. Petnic saw that firsthand last week, after he and other members of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council presented their planning vision for the area to residents at the local high school.

More than 100 people attended; more than a few doubted the possibilities laid out in the concept plan, which was the product of two years of work, meetings and editing to reach consensus.

Getting people to believe that change is possible could be a tough job for local activists and county officials. But Sorrentino, for one, says he is not giving up easily.

"I'm proud to say I've been there 32 years -- how often do you see a small business in a shopping center for that long?" Sorrentino said. "I really do believe the Cordish Co. is going to do something. I don't believe they're going to let that shopping center fall apart."

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