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Owings Mills Mall trying to find its identity

Empty stores haunt the corridors of Owings Mills Mall — their gates locked and shelves and racks bare.

Slowly they have trickled out: Forever 21, Nine West, Express, all gone. Hulking department stores that once anchored the mall have shut down, leaving thousands of square feet of nothing. And as Ken James, a shopper and a suit specialist at the mall's Macy's, put it, "When McDonald's moves out, you know it's bad."

This is the latest bout of an identity crisis that has plagued Owings Mills since it opened in 1985. The mall failed as an upscale center when Saks Fifth Avenue left town after a decade. Attempts to market Owings Mills as a moderately priced center also failed, when Sears and Lord & Taylor left in 2001 and 2002.

Now Owings Mills Mall seems to many shoppers to have no identity at all. It's more of a skeleton of a mall than a center that's open for business. Shoppers said it has become a mall of convenience — one they run to because it's close to home or work, not because of its good shopping choices.

"This is just sort of a dud mall," said Janelle Harris, a Towson University student who works at Victoria's Secret in the mall. "There is nothing here. If I didn't work here I wouldn't come at all."

Baltimore County officials and business leaders are hoping to persuade the mall's owner, the bankrupt General Growth Properties, to overhaul the property, which is located in one of the county's three main designated growth corridors. Or, some hope, the company will sell it to someone who will. (The anchor buildings that once housed department stores have separate owners.)

They think they have two key elements on their side.

The financially strapped General Growth is slated to emerge from bankruptcy this year, freeing it of millions of dollars of debt and putting the company in a better position to reinvest in its properties. County officials hope Owings Mills can cash in on the company's improved financial situation.

Business leaders also hope General Growth may feel pressure to upgrade because plans for a nearby project, Metro Center, are in the works. The venture will include a library, a branch of the Community College of Baltimore County, shops and restaurants — entities that all spell more competition for the mall.

County economic development officials and analysts said that Owings Mills has always had the demographics to support the mall, but that the owners never invested in it. The Rouse Co. of Columbia owned the property before selling it to Chicago-based General Growth.

Nearly 155,000 people live within a five-mile radius of the mall, according to 2009 county estimates, with about 66.2 percent of the households making more than $50,000 a year.

"You had an ownership that failed to pay attention to the mall and failed to step up and try to address the demands of the broader Owings Mills community and did not understand the needs of the community," said David S. Iannucci, Baltimore County's economic development director. "It was a seamless transition of ignoring the mall," he said of the ownership switch.

General Growth officials, who declined to be interviewed for this story, indicated in a statement that they were open to talks about the property.

"As General Growth … prepares to emerge from bankruptcy, the company is beginning to consider all its options for the property by assessing the needs of the surrounding community," Charles P. Crerand, the mall's general manager, said in the statement. "We are prepared to work with Baltimore County officials, community leaders and local businesses to create a plan that will benefit all parties."

When Owings Mills opened in 1985 it was positioned to be the premier shopping mall of the region — Baltimore's version of the New York shopping scene. The mall landed the prestigious Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened a year later with a black-tie cocktail party and champagne toast.

Life was good at the mall, or so it seemed.

A decade later, Saks announced it was pulling out. The company gave little explanation, but the move elicited plenty of theories and speculation: The 90,000-square-foot store was too small and didn't have a good selection. The opening of Nordstrom at nearby Towson Town Center had taken away some of the shine from Owings Mills. The death of a cleaning company worker on a secluded path near the mall in 1992 and other crimes had made people feel unsafe.

Whatever the reason, the mall wasn't living up to expectations.

"You can't point to any one thing," said Nathan Isbee, a vice president and analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. "It was a number of events that killed it. There is no future there as a regional mall." He added that the primary stake through the heart was the resurgence of Towson Town Center after Nordstrom opened there in 1992.

The closing of Saks started a sequence of store openings and closings and attempts to reinvent the mall.

Lord & Taylor opened in 1998 but closed in 2002. Sears closed 13 months before that after just two years at Owings Mills, saying its profits were not good. Macy's and Hecht's merged in 2002, leaving a vacancy that Boscov's Department Stores eventually took over. But then Boscov's declared bankruptcy and shut down too.

The vacancy rate at Owings Mills was 22.6 percent at the end of the third quarter this year, compared to 0.7 percent in the third quarter of 2006, according to real estate information firm CoStar Group.

Iannucci, of Baltimore County's economic development office, and other county officials took General Growth development officials on a tour of the county this past summer. The goal was to show them the area's assets and why it needed a decent retail center at the Owings Mills Mall site. One stop on the tour was the new Stevenson University campus down the street, which has brought an influx of students and spurred development in the area.

The Owings Mills Corporate Round Table, a coalition of local businesses, is meeting with General Growth officials this week to give their ideas on how to improve the mall. The group includes business such as T. Rowe Price and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which have offices near the mall.

"They are looking to protect their investments, some of which are huge," said Brenda Crabbs, executive director of the roundtable. "If the mall is in rundown condition, that tends to spill over into the property values and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They want to protect their investment and they want amenities for their employees."

Concluded Crabbs: "They really need to get their act together, to change the image and mix of the mall."

Many people think Owings Mills' days as an enclosed mall are done. They envision an open-air center with a popular anchor that will draw crowds, much like Hunt Valley Town Center, which is anchored by a Wegmans grocery store.

"The people were there to support the mall if they did it right," said Mark Millman, founder of executive hiring firm Millman Search Group, which works with retailers. "If they merchandised and marketed it right it might have worked. Now it's too little too late. They are going to have to reconfigure it or level it and put in some big-box stores."

It could be hard to bring the mall back to success.

"It's going to be very tough," said Stifel Nicolaus's Isbee. "It's not like you're in an area where there is no retail. It is in an area where there is no shortage of retail."

Shoppers at the mall recently said they would like a better shopping center. Many said that Owings Mills was not their first shopping choice and that they came only because the mall was convenient to work or home.

Catherine Hickey, 19, a sophomore at Stevenson College, said she usually shopped at Towson Town Center. She was at Owings Mills to return a vest at H&M because she didn't feel like driving back to Towson.

"I really wish it was more flourishing," she said of Owings Mills Mall. "I would come if it had more stores because it's closer to campus."

Lori Miller, a dental hygienist, said she preferred The Mall in Columbia and Towson Town Center but shops in Owings Mills sometimes because it's only minutes from her house. She likes a few stores, including H&M and The Children's Place, where she shops for her year-old daughter, Reese, but wonders if soon there will be any place left for her to shop.

"Every time I come there's another store that has shut down," Miller said. "It's really kind of depressing."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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