The American shopping experience changed in the second half of the 1900s from one where customers made their way to free-standing stores ranging from ma and pa operations to department stores to one where customers converged on a single destination, that being a mall with an enclosed and largely climate controlled common area surrounded by outlets selling just about anything.
Harford Mall was among the early such facilities, given its relatively rural location when it opened 40 years ago in 1972 at the site of what had been a horse racetrack and county fairgrounds. Though they were regarded as the latest in shopping, malls had history on their side. Essentially they were, and are, a clean and modern version of the ancient concept of a town's central marketplace.
They have become landmarks of sorts, owing to their size. In Harford County, as County Councilman Jim McMahan put it, "It was like a small city came to Bel Air."
Opening a mall, however, is no guarantee of success, as evidenced by Tollgate Mall, which has long since evolved into an open plaza shopping center. It's fairly common for malls to revert into some other form of shopping center. Golden Ring Mall, which had been a mainstay of the Rosedale area of Baltimore County, ended up being broken into smaller shopping plazas with big box stores. Hunt Valley Mall, which opened years after Harford Mall on what had been a pumpkin patch, has long since been converted into an open plaza shopping center, as well.
Part of the success of Harford Mall likely can be traced to its continual reinvention of itself. While the basic footprint is similar to what it was 40 years ago, it's vastly different - in terms of shops, main anchors, decor and layout - from what it was on day one.
That Harford Mall has managed to re-invent itself often enough, and effectively enough to remain in business for so long in such a competitive arena is testament to a successful business formula. It also has become the heart of Bel Air's retail community (not to mention the town's biggest taxpayer), a title it is likely to retain for the foreseeable future.