Bay Bridge mall is survivor

July 02, 2006|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

A summertime trip to the beach often includes an outlet shopping excursion, and the first stop for many travelers has historically been just across the Bay Bridge -- a halfway reprieve spot for those headed to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach, Del., from Baltimore or Washington.

But the shopping landscape on the "Upper Shore" has changed drastically in the last decade. Evolving traffic patterns and highway expansions have hurt retail on both sides of the bridge, leaving whole developments desolate.

But the Prime Retail outlet mall in Queenstown has survived the change, despite the financial difficulties of its parent a few years ago. This weekend, the company unveiled a major renovation of the mall, which is 10 miles east of the bridge, at the point where U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 diverge.

The renovation, which Prime Retail calls its "extreme makeover," includes replacing the center's stucco-like facade with a contemporary stone, brick and glass finish. The owner also added 80,000 square feet of shopping space and 20 new stores.

The mall now houses more upscale shops, including brands such as Calvin Klein, a Coach factory outlet, BCBG Max Azria, adidas and Harry & David.

The renovations are part of a broader plan by Prime Retail Inc., the Baltimore company that owns the Queenstown mall and 31 others, to improve its image after a too-rapid expansion put it on the brink of financial disaster three years ago.

Lightstone Group LLC, of Lakewood, N.J., bought Prime Retail for $638 million in 2003. Under the deal, Lightstone assumed $523 million in debt and gave Prime Retail financial backing to improve the centers, to make them less stodgy and more forward and fashion-conscious.

The Queenstown mall had become dated and dull. While it wasn't necessarily losing shoppers, it wasn't getting many new ones either. But since it began opening new stores such as Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren Polo last fall, it has seen a steady rise in shoppers.

"As soon as we started announcing we were getting new stores we saw a spike," said Bob Scharnus, senior general manager of the Queenstown mall. "We were under construction and it was pretty ugly around here, but people were excited about the changes."

The renovation is expected to create a surge in shopping in the area, economic development officials say. "It's more visible and more inviting," said Linda Friday, president of the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce. "This will only help business."

When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built more than a half-century ago, it spurred new development in the area. The population grew and people begin to make shorter, weekend and day trips across the bridge. Retail operations and other businesses opened to serve the booming population.

"It has allowed easier access to the Shore and has allowed people to treat the Upper Shore as bedroom communities," said Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic, and Community Outreach Network (BEACON), the economic research and consulting unit of the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. "You have two populations that weren't there before, the frequent visitor and the commuter."

But some businesses were hurt in recent years by highway upgrades designed to ease traffic congestion leading to the bridge. A fledgling outlet industry west of the bridge in Anne Arundel County never quite materialized because access to the businesses was confusing.

The twin spans -- formally the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge -- also acted as a psychological demarcation line. Beach goers didn't want to stop until they crossed it, some said.

"When you cross over the Bay Bridge that's when your vacation begins," said James Rzepkowski, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "That's when you pull over and make stops. You're no longer in the hustle and bustle of the west side."

On the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, outlets at Kent Narrows succumbed after a new bypass made it less convenient for drivers to exit.

"They couldn't get to it," said Amanda Apple, Queen Anne's County Heritage Coordinator. "It definitely lost its visibility."

Today, the bluish-gray colored outlets at Kent Narrows are barely visible from the highway.

Its former retail stores are now mostly a mix of local businesses, such as a coffee shop, a T-shirt store and a fitness club. A developer of the project did not return repeated phone calls.

The Prime Retail mall, on the other hand, has benefited from its location where U.S. 301 and U.S. 50 split.

There are entrances to the mall from both highways and the stores are very visible.

Shoppers at the outlets recently said they welcome the changes.

"It was really plain and old-looking before," said Emma Wheatman, 15, who lives in Queenstown and was shopping with her grandmother. "This is much better."

When asked what they liked best about the changes, Jessica James, 24, and a group of girlfriends immediately chanted "Coach," referring to the high-end purse store.

"There's definitely more variety here now," she said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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