By Jim Joyner
8:00 PM EDT, April 22, 2013
A half-empty former shopping mall in Eldersburg will be remade as a Walmart-anchored plaza under plans announced Monday by owner Black Oak Associates.
In a move long awaited by many in the community, the Owings Mills-based developer will spend $50 million to renovate Carrolltown Center into Eldersburg Commons, with new restaurants and home, fashion and beauty retailers.
For a decade, Carrolltown Center has been a community sore spot. The interior of the small community mall was closed in 2005, and the property languished with a diminishing roster of tenants and an abandoned movie theater.
"It's been the single biggest concern of the Eldersburg area," said Carroll County Commissioner Doug Howard, who represents Sykesville and Eldersburg, "both in terms of people wanting it to be more than it is, and being frustrating with things like declining buildings and kids hanging out.
"People felt something should be done about it," he said.
R. Dixon Harvey, president of Black Oak, said the project follows through on a promise made to neighbors nine years ago to eventually make the center a focal point for the community.
"It's been a really long haul," Harvey said. "Everybody in the community has been really patient, and we're anxious to move this forward as fast as we can."
Black Oak purchased Carrolltown late in 2004, and closed the interior in 2005, announcing plans to turn it into an open-air plaza similar to The Avenue in White Marsh.
One of the sticking points to that plan was Kmart's presence as an anchor. The lease with that store's parent company, Sears Holdings, gave it the power to approve or disapprove Black Oak's redevelopment plan. Negotiations to gain that approval and make Kmart part of the plan stalled when the recession struck, Harvey said.
Meanwhile, major tenants, including a Peebles department store and a Flagship theater, left the center.
"We made three different offers" to Sears Holdings, Harvey said. "Once 2008 hit, we knew we weren't going to be working it out with them."
Kmart closed its store last year as part of a nationwide restructuring. Sears Holdings let the lease expire in September 2012, and, Harvey said, Black Oak "moved into high gear."
Work could begin as early as this fall, Harvey said. The new center will have 290,000 square feet of space — roughly 40,000 less than the existing center.
Walmart will replace its existing Eldersburg store, located just a few blocks away near the corner of Liberty Road and Route 32, with a new Superstore at the renovated center.
That move worried Howard.
"When I first saw it, I thought, 'What happens to the existing Walmart?' " he said. "My preference will be that there's a plan for that property in place [before the store moves]; I don't want to trade a problem on one end of town for another problem at the other end."
Still, he said, the plan for Eldersburg Commons leaves him "hopeful" that a part of town that had languished can regain its luster.
"It definitely needs to be redeveloped," Howard said. "It's going to depend on how they handle traffic, how it gets executed, how much the public is going to be part of the process — but I'm hopeful.
"The renovation of that mall will be a real lift for the community," he said. "That's an area that needs a shot in the arm."
Ellen Dix, an Eldersburg resident and former president of the Freedom Area Citizens Council, said she recalled eight or nine years ago when Harvey would come to the group's meetings — often held at the mall — and discuss plans for redevelopment. Over the years, she said, residents became frustrated with a lack of action and the continuing deterioration of the center, but she knew dealing with the Kmart lease was a sticking point and believed Harvey would make good on his plan to redevelop the site.
"With all the complaints — and many of them were justified — I think he has always been trying to do the right thing," she said. "We would ride by and get caught up in how ugly it is, but I never thought for a moment that he would abandon the center and the community."
The company filed its plans with county officials on Monday and still must go through a development review process. Harvey said it will bring 221 jobs during construction and more than 630 after it's up and running.
Some aspects of Black Oak's original concept for the shopping center have changed. The company owns another tract on the north side of Liberty Road slated for development as Main Street Eldersburg, and Harvey said a new theater is more likely to go there. He said Monday he's in negotiations with a theater chain, but it wants to see progress at Eldersburg Commons before moving ahead at Main Street.
He said negotiations are underway for a steakhouse and other restaurants with Asian, Mexican and Italian cuisines, though he could not name them or any of the other stores. He also said interest in the project has been high.
"There are a lot of retailers that have wanted to be in Eldersburg," Harvey said. "They've just been waiting for the right project."
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