Customers, businesses anticipate many benefits of plaza supermarket

Rebuilt Shoppers food store to anchor shopping center

Maryland City

December 28, 2004|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

From her vantage point at Maryland City Plaza, Pamela Doran has eagerly waited for the new Shoppers supermarket to take form.

The plaza's anchor store burned down in March 2003 in a fire that caused $9 million in damage, one of the largest in Anne Arundel County history. Authorities recently determined that the cause was arson.

But the store's long-anticipated replacement on Route 198 didn't begin to go up until a few months ago. Signs foretell its opening this month, though the store is scheduled to open in March or April, near the second anniversary of the blaze.

"To tell you the truth, I'm a bit upset it hasn't opened sooner," Doran said.

Doran, a Shoppers customer, said she can't wait to try out the 59,000-square-foot store rising from what was a burned-out hulk. Doran also manages the CitiFinancial branch that sits within 100 feet of the construction site, so she's eager to see what the increased traffic will mean for her business.

"We're looking forward to a lot of new customers," she said.

Community leaders said the project reflects the growing need of an area that has proved enticing for supermarkets such as Shoppers. Giant Food just finished remodeling a nearby store on U.S. 1 and is completing a similar project at its location on Route 197.

Two Weis stores and a Safeway are also nearby. All of those stores are within 10 miles in an area that extends into Howard and Prince George's counties.

Lanham-based Shoppers plans to open a store just south of Laurel on U.S. 1 by late next year.

"Laurel is really diverse. ... The development has really exploded," said Tim Reyburn, president of the Russett Community Association.

It has been a long time coming, and the plaza merchants and area residents along Route 198 are beginning to feel the effect of the boom.

Only the concrete walls and steel framing of the store facing Route 198 are in place, but those few signs of long-awaited progress are stirring up business.

Advance Auto Parts has had an outlet there since 2002, said store manager Paul Carey. Although business has started to pick again since construction began a few months ago, he said, management has considered leaving.

"Most people still don't know we're here," Carey said.

Combined Properties Inc., the plaza's manager, hopes that the $10.8 million project to rebuild the Shoppers store, replace the aging facade and install new signs will change that, said Linda Dreyer, the company's marketing manager.

Construction was initially delayed by property insurance issues, representatives from Shoppers and Combined Properties said. The cause of the four-alarm fire was declared unknown until a few months ago, when county fire investigators ruled it was arson.

The fire started just before 9 p.m. March 16, 2003, at Shoppers Food Warehouse and spread to two adjoining stores, Total Crafts and Dollar Buys. The owners of the three stores spent months cleaning up the site and salvaging what they could. But the charred ruins remained, a discouraging sight to area businesses and residents living east of Laurel Park.

"It was a hulk for the longest time," Reyburn said.

The permit process has been the biggest impediment in recent months, Dreyer said.

The new store - renamed Shoppers Food and Pharmacy - will be about 8,000 square feet bigger than its predecessor, with larger deli and bakery counters and a wider array of international foods, said Kevin Small, Shoppers' vice president of store development.

About 50 of the 95 employees of the old Shoppers transferred to other locations after the fire, and they will get the chance to work again at the Maryland City Plaza supermarket, said Julie McWilliams, vice president for human resources at Shoppers.

Despite the long delay, Shoppers was never hesitant about putting up a new store on the site, Small said.

"Rebuilding in Maryland City was an easy decision to make," he said of the community sandwiched between Laurel and Fort Meade.

In anticipation of the traffic rush, Shoppers and Combined Properties have petitioned the State Highway Administration for a stop light between Red Clay and Old Annapolis roads to accommodate customers.

The new Shoppers has been repositioned closer to the back of the plaza, where there are more parking spaces.

But Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said the investment might not pay off because parking isn't being added.

"I love to shop at Shoppers, but I wouldn't do the parking," he said. "If you've got to fight your way in and fight your way out ... is it worth it? Maybe not for a few bucks."

Plaza merchants hope otherwise. A few of the 18 current stores have thrived, but most have just tried to survive.

The shopping center looked closed for months after the fire, said In Ok Yi, manager of Beauty Supply, whose store sits next door to the construction project. Only the customers who knew of her business before the fire have come since then, she said.

"Of course, a lot of customers have asked" about the Shoppers, Yi said. "They say it'll be better."

The stores that have disappeared since the fire include Total Crafts, Oak Post Furniture and T-Mobile. Dollar Buys moved into a smaller location on the east side of the center, next to Pier 1 Imports.

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