A long wait for Laurel residents came to an end on Friday, March 28 with the opening of the first retailer at the Towne Centre at Laurel, a new retail area still under construction.

The grand opening of Burlington Coat Factory Friday is a major milestone in the $130 million development at the site of the former Laurel Mall on Route 1.

Because of Burlington's long-term lease, store officials reached an agreement with developers so it could be the last building demolished and the first to open at Towne Centre at Laurel.

The ribbon cutting for Burlington attracted local and state officials and lots of area residents, eager to see the completion of the first phase of the redevelopment of a struggling shopping mall to a mixed-use retail, dining, entertainment and residential complex.

"The wait has been a long time coming, so this is terrific for Laurel," said District 21 state Sen. James Rosapepe, who represents Laurel. "The store looks terrific and the main thing is that the people are enthusiastic and happy to see this progress."

The renovation has been in the making since 2006, when Laurel Mall was sold during bankruptcy to AEW Capital Management and Somera Capital Management. Initial and more costly renovation plans for the mall fell through under AEW and Somera, who still own a stake in what was formerly the mall. The current lead developer and part owner is Maryland-based Greenberg Gibbons, a company that also redeveloped Annapolis Towne Centre and Hunt Valley Towne Centre. They came on board in 2011 and started demolition of the existing mall and new construction in 2012.

Before Friday's ribbon cutting at Burlington, Mayor Craig Moe praised Greenberg Gibbons for keeping the Laurel project on schedule.

"They made a promise that this would be the first store to open and it was," Moe said. "When they tell you they're going to do something, they do it. When a developer comes in, it's important for a city when they do what they say."

Area residents said they felt the same way.

"I'd been hoping that this would happen, so it's exciting to have the long wait over," said Mary Stephens, of Beltsville, as she anxiously waited for the ribbon to be cut so she could start shopping.

The new 70,000-square-foot Burlington, located at Laurel Mall at Fourth Street and Cherry Lane, now faces Route 1. Although it's smaller in size, Burlington's regional vice president Ed Heller said the Laurel store features a new "prototype" design for the chain.

"It's a little smaller but this one is more efficient in terms of space," Heller said as he pointed to the numerous neatly laid out rows of name-brand merchandise in the brightly lit store. "This store has a more vibrant look."

City Councilman Michael Leszcz was pleased with the design and also the quality of merchandise. "There's a lot of merchandise here and it looks equal to [the store at] Arundel Mills," Leszcz said. "I always thought Arundel Mills had better merchandise, but this looks like a quality store."

Heller disputed Leszcz's assertion of higher quality merchandise at the Arundel Mills Burlington. "We try to have our merchandise equal to the local community and Arundel Mills was just in a much larger community with greater [stock of] merchandise, but it was the same category," he said "Other than the size of the buildings, you won't see much difference in the stores. The brands will be the same."

City Council President Frederick Smalls said he was pleased with the store's layout and merchandise, which put him in the mood to do a bit of shopping.

"I don't own any jeans, so maybe I'll find some today," Smalls joked. "But seriously, the thing I'm most pleased about is the jobs. This will be a huge plus for our local economy."

The store will employ 100 people, making it one of the larger employers at the Towne Centre at Laurel.

"Laurel is a growing, vibrant community that we believe in, so this new store gives us the ability to keep jobs in Laurel," Heller said. "We have 16 stores in Maryland and Laurel is a great location for us. The store here has always been a pretty good performer."

'Just the beginning'

Once the ribbon was cut, shoppers such as Angela Jones poured in and began to fill up their shopping carts. Jones said she liked the friendly atmosphere and was impressed that the store's manager, Hayden Remy, was going out of his way to introduce himself to customers. Jones lives behind the former mall and said Burlington's opening is a definite asset to the area.