Forty years ago today (Friday), on the site of the town's former horse racetrack, Harford Mall in Bel Air opened its doors to thousands of shoppers with 1970s mainstays like Montgomery Ward and Korvettes at either end of its half-million square feet.
While the names may have changed (Macy's and Sears are now anchors instead, and Ward's and Korvettes long ago went to the retail graveyard), the game plan remains largely the same for Harford Mall, which has maintained its reputation as the area's premier shopping destination over the years.
The shopping center has been blessed to be in a location that has weathered the economy better than most, retail analyst Mark Millman, of the Owings Mills-based Millman Search Group, said Thursday.
"It's a nice community. It's one of the fastest-growing communities in Maryland: Bel Air and Fallston," he said. "The recession has somewhat bypassed the Bel Air area economically."
"It's doing fine; it's survived a lot of recessions," he said about the property, which he called a "solid" B, or second-tier, mall.
"It has a good tenant mix, and thank God it's in a growing community," he said. "It will continue to grow. It's been there for 40 years."
Through all the changes, Harford Mall remains a destination and a draw for the area as the county's only enclosed shopping mall, Bel Air economic development director Trish Heideinrech said.
"I think the mall is a real anchor for a lot of other businesses in the area," she said. "The stronger the mall is, the stronger the whole retail corridor."
The store's most recent rebirth was in 2007, when it followed the trend of more pedestrian-friendly or Main Street-style mall facades, similar to The Avenue in White Marsh.
The food court sector was razed and replaced with a "Lifestyle Center," now home to eateries and stores like Bonefish Grill, Qdoba, Five Guys and TCBY, a plan that Heidenreich said has been a good move.
Hecht's also changed its name to Macy's around that time.
CBL & Associates, Inc., bought the mall in 2004 with plans of rebuilding the property. The original developer and owner was BTR Realty of Baltimore.
Together with Harford Mall Annex, the property is the company's only mall in Maryland. Most of the other major malls in the Baltimore area are owned by General Growth Properties.
"I can say that the Lifestyle Center of the mall was a really smart move on their part because they probably did some serious looking at what the demands were within the area," Heidenreich said.
"I think it's been a real boom for downtown Bel Air," she continued, giving the example of Bonefish as a prominent restaurant.
"We were in demand for a white tablecloth [restaurant]," she said. "Those are real destination places, like Vaccaro's, that came up from Baltimore."
Along with BGE, the mall also remains a top taxpayer for the town and one of the biggest in Harford County, as well. For many years it was the county's largest building in terms of square footage and still ranks as one of the largest.
"I work closely with the mall because it's one of the really top economic drivers for the town itself," Heidenreich said. "The town really values what the mall has done. I don't feel like I have to go to White Marsh or anything."
When the mall formally opened, on Oct. 12, 1972, which was a Thursday, its first general manager, Christian Chekey, told The Aegis he estimated it got 150,000 visitors opening weekend, more than the county's total population. Chekey, who is retired and still lives in Bel Air, became an instant local celebrity. Contacted for this story, he said his recollections of those days were cloudy.
County Councilman Jim McMahan, who was a host on the town's long since defunct WVOB-AM Radio, recalled some of the uneasiness in the community when the mall came in on the site of a former racetrack and fairgrounds off Route 1 and Tollgate Road and forever changed the landscape of a then-rural area.
"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."