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.
"I hope that it will be successful and that people will respect it and keep it looking this way," Jones said. "I have an elderly mom here and this will give her a place to go and walk around during the day. It's taken a long time to get this open, but it is worth it."
As new customers entered the store, greeters passed out discount coupons, which many people held in their hands as they waited in cash register lines. Laurel Board of Trade Chairman Matthew Coates, who said he "loved" the store's layout, smiled as he watched the purchases being made.
"I'm so glad that a lot more money can stay in the Laurel community now, rather than going to Arundel Mills," Coates said. "This is just the beginning and I look forward to seeing the rest of the mall come and even more money staying in Laurel."
The Laurel Board of Trade was one of several local charitable organizations that were given tickets to sell for $5 in advance of the opening. With the tickets, customers received a 15 percent discount on purchases Thursday, March 27, which was designated as Charity Day at the store.
"People who didn't get tickets in advance were able to buy them from the charities at the door on Thursday. We were open from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on that day," Heller said. "All of that money, 100 percent, went to the charities."
Coates said the LBOT raised $300 through the ticket sales, which the group will use for their back-to-school supplies campaign in September.
On opening day, store officials also presented Sarah's Hope with an array of adult and infant clothing, furnishings, housewares and other items. Located at Fort Meade, the organization provides emergency and transitional housing for the homeless.
"This is part of our Burlington Gives Back program and something we do for the community when we open a store," Heller said.
To accommodate shoppers, new parking spaces were available in the front of the store, which customers could access from the development's newly installed Route 1 entrance. The new, two-level Fourth Street garage, which has more than 600 parking spaces, was also open for parking in the rear of the store.
The rest of the Towne Centre at Laurel construction area is still fenced off from Burlington, which has new trees and shrubbery, a paved roadway and a traffic circle leading in and out of the store's area.
"Greenberg Gibbons has done a wonderful job on the landscaping, it's great," said Laurel City Councilwoman Donna Crary.
But according to Greenberg Gibbons senior executive Thomas Fitzpatrick, the harsh winter and numerous snow days made it a bit difficult for aesthetic planting.
"We had snow last week and the Monday before that, we tried to plant trees and we had 8 inches of snow," Fitzpatrick said.
The brutal winter has not slowed progress on construction work on the rest of the center. According to Fitzpatrick, they are still on schedule for phase two of the project, which will include several openings.
"Harris Teeter [grocery store] has a target date of Sept. 24 for its opening and Sports Authority and Old Navy will have staggered openings soon after that," Fitzpatrick said. "Regal [Theater] will open Nov. 14."
The Regal will be a 12-screen, state-of-the-art movie theater. Fitzpatrick said standard theater seating was planned but the company decided to upgrade to its luxury seating, which is wider with more leg room.
As for leasing, Fitzpatrick said 85 percent of the center's 400,000-square-feet of space is committed.
"We've passed on some deals because of the economics — their rent offers were too low," he said. "But the response from retailers has been great. We're pleased with the current level of leasing and we're excited that everything is on schedule."