Carrolltown Center aims for a major makeover

Owner is considering a Main Street concept

July 24, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carrolltown Center, Carroll County's oldest mall and a gathering place for its most populous area, is about to undergo a major transformation that could take as long as three years and cost about $30 million.

R. Dixon Harvey Jr., who bought the mall in 1992 when it was in receivership and sold it six years later for $13 million, has repurchased the 335,000- square-foot enclosed shopping center on Liberty Road. He settled in December, paying $10 million for the property.

"I have always thought Carrolltown Center was a great retail opportunity," he said. "When I bought it in 1992, I knew it was viable but needed a whole new redevelopment."

The mall has long been a kind of community center for unincorporated Eldersburg, home to more than 30,000 residents who have no municipal center.

"The mall is a real amenity for Eldersburg and could serve as an attractive point," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens Council, an unofficial liaison between residents and county government. "We are a bedroom community with no town center, nothing to draw people together."

Harvey, president of Black Oak Associates in Owings Mills, plans to give the mall, which opened in 1977, a more open look, similar to The Avenue at White Marsh.

"I know this mall will be open-air in its next life," said Harvey. "That concept has a Main Street component, a real community feel. We really want to create a place."

At least, that is the plan for now. Harvey is reviewing many redevelopment proposals and probably won't settle on a plan for several months. "We are really in the limbo phase right now," he said. "We have completed the closure of the interior and are looking at plans for what is next."

Initial phases of the reconstruction included what he called "stabilizing and keeping any merchants who wanted to stay."

"Nobody who wanted to stay was put out," he said. "We want to enable the merchants here to do well."

All the remaining merchants have moved to the perimeter or are in the corridor opposite Kmart, an anchor store since the mall opened nearly 30 years ago. Ruby Condon, a Kmart clerk, asked Harvey last week to "Get busy and do something for us."

"This mall used to be so nice," she said. "It had a lot of meeting places, and there was always entertainment."

Mary Glass, who has worked at Kmart since it opened, said, "I shop in this mall, too. I never go out of here empty-handed."

When the operator of the mall's six-cinema theater opted out last spring, Harvey quickly discovered how well-situated Carrolltown is, he said.

"We soon had four cinema chains vying to take over the operation without losing a day," he said. "Flagship Cinemas will invest a lot of money in the theaters and totally redo them."

Residents would like to see more of a town-center concept, said Dangel.

Instead of a mall filled with shops, maybe a blend of office condos and retail would appeal more, he said. The mall has a longtime somewhat quirky tenant in Freedom Christian Church. The worship center began nine years ago in a community room and has grown into 10,000 square feet, the equivalent of several suites, said Pastor Chris Reuwer.

"We are very comfortable in the marketplace," Reuwer said. "It gives us wonderful visibility. We will stay here as long as we can."

About 25 other tenants have agreed to stay throughout the renovations, including anchors Kmart, Peebles, Big Lots and the theaters, Harvey said.

"Obviously, we will reuse whatever we can," he said of the mall's ceramic floors, gracious columns and gazebos.

He is unsure about keeping the name, which lacks the final `e' preferred by nearby Carrolltowne Elementary, the surrounding neighborhood and several small businesses.

"Who knows what this will be called in its next life?" he said.

Six years ago, when Harvey sold the mall to Equity Investment Group of Fort Wayne, Ind., it was about 90 percent leased with more than 60 shops, offices, restaurants and movie theaters.

Today, Harvey has a gutted interior with fewer than half those tenants.

"This community wants better offerings for dining and entertainment," he said. "They want convenience and quality in their basic shopping needs. There is definitely a demand for what we can offer. We are really comfortable with this market and meeting its needs. Just give us a few years to pull the pieces together."

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