Some in South Carroll believe fate of Kmart could influence Carrolltown redevelopment

This story has been updated to reflect that, on Dec. 29, Sears Holdings released a partial list of stores that will be closing.

Eldersburg resident Ellen Dix admits that when she heard the news this week that Sears Holdings Corp. will close 100 to 120 Sears and Kmart stores nationwide in 2012, she had one thought:

"Please, please, please let us be one of them," said Dix, president of the Freedom Area Citizens Council, an unofficial umbrella community group in South Carroll.

In a harsh economy, it's tough to imagine a community wanting to see another store close. But neighbors of the Kmart in the Carrolltown Center in Eldersburg say that, in many ways, the demise of that store might be a blessing.

That's because residents see Kmart as the pivotal domino to fall before a long-awaited redevelopment of Carrolltown Center, at the heart of Eldersburg at Liberty and Ridge roads, can take place.

Commissioner Doug Howard, who represents Eldersburg and Sykesville as the 5th District member of the Board of County Commissioners, said, "it wouldn't hurt my feelings if Kmart decided they had done everything they could there and decided to close."

"You hate to see anybody go out," he said, "but I think we would see it as the next step for redevelopment of the center."

For several years, owners of the center, the Owings Mills-based Black Oak Associates, have planned a dramatic redesign of the 330,000-square-foot center.

It was late 2004 when Black Oak purchased Carrolltown, and 2005 when the company closed the interior of the mall and announced plans to turn it into an open-air shopping plaza similar to The Avenue in White Marsh, with a new mix of stores, a new movie theater and a new outlook for an increasingly affluent population in South Carroll.

But negotiations between Sears Holding and Black Oak for different space at the plaza were unsuccessful. And terms of the retailer's lease — which Black Oak says lasts into 2013 — reportedly give Sears Holdings approval rights over Black Oak's plan.

"They're called Sears Holding," Dix said, "and they've been holding onto that lease."

Dixon Harvey, president of Black Oak, this week declined to say whether a closure of Kmart would indeed trigger Carrolltown's redevelopment — but he said he understood residents' desire to see a change.

"I would not be surprised for residents to be in favor of anything that might influence the center," he said.

Harvey said early this week that he hadn't heard if Carrolltown's Kmart is indeed among those that might be closed in 2012.

"We haven't received any comment from Kmart — nor would I expect to," Harvey said. "It could be weeks, or months, before they announce actual stores (that will close)."

UPDATE: Sears Holdings officials could not be reached for comment, but on Thursday, Dec. 29, the company released a partial list — naming 79 of the up to 120 stores that will be slated for closure. The Carrolltown location was not among them, and there was no immmediate indication of when other stores would be named.

'As patient as we need to be'

Black Oak first bought Carrolltown in the early 1990s, then sold it several years later. When the company repurchased it in 2004, Harvey said the goal was a major transformation that would turn the center into a community focal point and a destination plaza for larger stores — and a complement to his Main Street Eldersburg retail development, which is slated for property on the other side of Liberty Road, less than a mile away.

"When we bought (Carrolltown) back, we knew it was going to be a work in progress," Harvey said. "We will be as patient as we need to be."

He noted that there are other stores that have "tenant rights" in any redevelopment plan. "It's not just Kmart," he said.

Several other tenants have left the center in recent years, and by the end of February, Peebles and Blockbuster Video are also expected to be gone.

Neighbors of the center have called it run down and an eyesore, and Dix said she routinely hears from residents who would like to see Kmart close so that the redevelopment can advance.

"People ask me all the time, 'What can FACC do to move it along?' " she said.

In 2008, the Freedom group gathered a petition that Dix said was aimed at getting Sears/Kmart to work with Black Oak. She said members gathered about 1,800 signatures and even had a meeting with a Sears corporate official.

But the company held its ground, saying it was not satisfied with Black Oak's offers.

"I would do anything if I thought that FACC could move it along," Dix said. "I just think it's a moot point. If they cared, they would have done something back when we were starting petitions."

Yet, Dix said she would not be surprised if Sears Holdings wants to keep the Kmart.

"It's a good piece of property," she said, "and South Carroll has been pretty recession-proof."

Dix noted that throughout the inactivity, she believes Black Oak has tried to maintain the property as a community resource. FACC has hosted its National Night Out events there, and nonprofits have used the lot for fundraisers, she said, all with Black Oak's blessing.

Howard said he believes that, from an economic standpoint, the center's redevelopment could be poised to occur at a crucial time. He has touted Sykesville's Warfield Cultural and Commerce Center as potential job engines for Carroll, and said better amenities — such as new retail centers instead of outdated ones — are important to lure new jobs and boost the economy.

Carrolltown's redevelopment is a key piece of that puzzle, he said. "The community wants it, the developer wants it, and we want it."

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