"For a long time, no one really knew what was going to happen to that piece of property," McMahan said Thursday. "I remember when the word came out that there was going to be a big mall there. Everyone in town was obviously wondering what on earth that was going to do to downtown Bel Air? Well, history shows that that pretty much killed the business interests that were in downtown Main Street."
Bel Air was a "typical farming community" for its time, where people came to Main Street on Fridays and Saturdays to do their shopping, McMahan said.
The mall changed all that.
"The surrounding communities were excited because it was something new, big-city, modern shopping, coming to Bel Air," McMahan said. "The merchants on Main Street and town fathers were skeptical. There was mixed emotion."
McMahan recalled how his father, then chief of police, worried about a rise in traffic and enlisted the help of the state police to help manage the mall.
"It was like a small city came to Bel Air," McMahan said, adding the mall had a personality of its own.
"We did a lot of remotes [broadcasts] back then from the Harford Mall and the most colorful character was Chris Chekey," he said.
Since then, personalities, stores and retail ideas have come and gone.
Harford County has changed quite a bit, too. It had about 120,000 residents in 1972. The county's population is more than double that in 2012, and more than 55,000 people live in the principal Bel Air ZIP Codes, 2014 and 2015, the latter which did not exist 40 years ago.
Over the years, the mall has tried to keep up with the times, economically and aesthetically, and has appeared to have done a good job of it.
The mall got an "upscale," $4 million face-lift with revamped stores in 1987.
Hecht's expanded the mall to 140,000 square feet in 1994. The store had replaced Korvettes in 1982, after the latter, a discount chain that was sort of the forerunner of today's Walmart, folded.
The mall considered adding a second level in 1997, as well as a two-story parking garage; neither change was made, however.
Despite the early ambivalence toward the mall and its contribution to the ultimate destruction of some of Bel Air's traditional Main Street-based shopping, McMahan said Harford Mall has proven itself over the years.
"I think the Harford Mall has been a good asset for the area and I think it has basically been a good neighbor," he said. "Obviously, it totally changed the way Bel Air did business and shopped."
"Now Main Street has an identity of its own, which has to be," he continued. "I think it was the wheels of progress. The proof is in the pudding, and people visited the Harford Mall and it was what they wanted."