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Best Buy to close Inner Harbor, Hunt Valley stores in May

Best Buy will close its Inner Harbor and Hunt Valley stores in May, part of a move to shutter 50 locations across the country.

Company officials said in a news release that the stores were temporarily closed to inform employees of the decision Saturday, and they will permanently close May 12.

Best Buy has been struggling against online competitors, and its chief executive officer abruptly resigned last week amid reports of an inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Along with the store closings, the company has said it is cutting 400 employees.

At the Hunt Valley Towne Centre, a 45,000-square-foot Best Buy will be closing amid an expansion of the retail center to build two new stores.

"What's happening to Best Buy is two things: They're finding large format stores are not productive, and Hunt Valley is one of those," said Thomas M. Fitzpatrick, president of Greenberg Gibbons Commercial Corp., which owns the retail center. "The electronics category is also getting clobbered by Walmart and the Internet — the category is clearly a challenge."

In Baltimore, the closure of the Inner Harbor location — which opened in 2005 — in the Lockwood Place development follows the closing of Filene's Basement next door and the 2010 closing of the ESPN Zone across the street in the Power Plant building.

For each of those stores, the closures were due to broader issues involving the individual companies. Filene's Basement closed all of its 21 locations as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Baltimore ESPN Zone location closed along with locations in Washington, Chicago, New York and Las Vegas, and Phillips Seafood restaurant promptly filled the restaurant space.

Development officials say they aren't worried about the closures, saying there has been an overall expansion of retail downtown, including interest in the Pratt Street corridor.

"While we will be sad to see the departure of Best Buy, change is a constant in retail, particularly with the competition created by online advances like iTunes and Amazon.com," said J. Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, in an e-mail.

Fowler has previously said that it has been difficult for larger retailers to find space on Pratt Street because available spaces tend to be small — in the 3,000-square-foot range — while stores typically build in the 30,000-square-foot to 50,000-square-foot range. The Downtown Partnership was working with some property owners there to find ways to expand available space.

He said there has been "strong interest" in the Filene's Basement site and said a deal with a new tenant is close.

"It's a fact of life that retailers come and go. The encouraging news is that there are plenty of retailers willing to fill the void," Fowler said.

Terri Harrington, a vice president with MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, said that though Pratt Street is "thriving," the backfill could take time. "Transactions of this nature do not happen quickly, and it's unfortunate we'll have a dark space on Pratt Street in the meantime," she said.

Fowler said stores focused on apparel and general goods — things like towels, garbage cans and linens — are the types of places downtown residents are looking for.

The Hunt Valley Towne Centre, meanwhile, has been undergoing construction to its Main Street area to add additional businesses. Fitzpatrick said one of the new stores will be a women's clothing store, while another lease is being worked out. Overall, the shopping center is 98 percent leased and occupied, he said.

Like Fowler, Fitzpatrick said he didn't expect any problem filling the Best Buy space: "This is just a transition."

Best Buy spokeswoman Kelly Groehler said the company would help the employees of its Baltimore stores find other positions.

In a statement, the company said, "This was not an easy decision to make. We chose these stores carefully, and are working to ensure the impact to our employees will be as minimal as possible, while serving all customers in a convenient and satisfying way. But we also recognize the impact this news has on the people who deserve respect for the contributions they have made to our business.

Best Buy will continue to operate 15 Baltimore-area stores, the company said, including 10 "big boxes" and five stand-alone Best Buy mobile stores.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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