Drive around Security Square Mall on a typical day, and there will be some foot traffic, some cars and some shoppers, all against the backdrop of hundreds of empty parking spots.
Ask local politicians what they think should be done to encourage investment at Security Square Mall — located in Woodlawn at the intersection of Interstate 70 and the Baltimore Beltway — and they’ll say that Security Square is a prime location, in part because it is designated as a Maryland Opportunity Zone that provides federal tax incentives to those who invest in certain communities around the state.
And then they’ll likely mention Set the Captives Free Outreach Center, a nondenominational church with around 2,000 members that’s based in Woodlawn. Last year, the church purchased 160,000 square feet in the mall to develop into the community O.W.E. Center to host worship services, county services, child care services and more. (“O.W.E.” stands for Outreach, Worship and Education, three of the focus areas for the community center.)
“Moving here will just give us more space to do all the things we currently do,” said Pastor Karen Bethea, senior pastor at the church. “This whole move is about more space to do more ministry to meet the needs of the community.”
The church currently meets in a large building at 7111 Windsor Boulevard in Windsor Mill.
The church bought the property, formerly the home of Seoul Plaza and J.C. Penney before that, at Security Square Mall for $4.75 million in June 2018, according to online property records. Initially, church leaders said, they expected to be fully moved in by April 2019. However, the process of gutting the property, doing construction, getting electrical and other work up to code and ultimately preparing the space is taking longer.
“This is an 18-month process,” Bethea said, though she expects the church to be fully moved in by the end of 2019. Already, church administrative offices are located in the building.
“When you’re faithful to what you’re currently doing, God will then increase you to provide even more,” she said.
A sanctuary and other meeting rooms will be the second phase, she said, along with some other partners and agencies. While a complete timeline is still to be determined, Bethea said the community center is full “on paper,” and that all future tenants are accounted for.
Chick-fil-A, the Baltimore County Department of Health, an adoption agency, a food pantry, a youth center, a 24-hour day care, two hair salons, a workforce development office, community meeting rooms, a miniature food court and an educational wing of multiple classrooms are all planned for the two-story space, in addition to the sanctuary, offices and chapel. Once construction of the center is complete, the church plans to open and connect its space to the rest of the mall.
“We want to work very closely with the community,” Bethea said.
Her husband, Pastor Linwood Bethea, has been instrumental in growing the church’s ministry, Karen Bethea said. Linwood Bethea also leads Nation of Men, a group that seeks to “empower men to take ownership in their responsibility for making homes and community a spiritually and mentally healthy environment.”
County Councilman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat who represents Security Square and Woodlawn, has toured the future home of the outreach center and said he think’s it’s a “long-term vision” that’s a “good start” for bringing activity to the region.
“That’s going to bring a fair amount of people into Security Square Mall,” Quirk said.
The mall currently has just one vacancy, according to management. The mall, which opened in 1972, doesn’t do traffic counts of the number of visitors, but “you always want to try and draw new people,” said general manager Benjamin Bard.
Quirk co-hosted a community meeting in March 2017 with David S. Brown Enterprises, a commercial and residential developer which at the time proposed crafting Security Square Mall into a mixed-use town center, like those in White Marsh, the Metro Centre at Owings Mills or Lansdowne Station.
Representatives from David S. Brown Enterprises could not be reached for comment. The firm does not currently own any of the mall, though Security Wards LLC, an investment group that is partnered with Brown, does own a significant portion of the mall.
In 2017, the Catonsville Times reported Brown was in talks with other shop owners in the hope of acquiring additional parcels before moving forward with a design.
Charles Sydnor III, a Democratic state delegate who represents Security Square and Windsor Mill in Annapolis, said he’d like to see the mall turn into something like the shopping centers in Hunt Valley and White Marsh. The community around the mall could get behind and support the developments that Set the Captives Free are working on, Sydnor said.
“I’m not exactly certain what’s going to come out of it, but I do know that the community wants to see something done,” Sydnor said. “I think the community deserves it.”
Quirk and Sydnor, in addition to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., have all toured the church’s space, and all have spoken favorably of it.
T.J. Smith, Olszewski’s press secretary, said in an email that Baltimore County is committed to bringing more resources to the mall.
“We are also actively engaging with Set the Captives Free who will be an key partner at the location and we look at this as an opportunity to continue our conversations for what is in the best interest of the community,” Smith wrote.
Bard, the mall’s general manager, said he thought the church moving in to the mall was “wonderful” and should increase mall traffic. Security Square is doing well, he said, but could use some redevelopment — a difficult proposal considering that there are five ownership groups that can have conflicting goals and interests for the mall.
Besides Set the Captives Free, the other mall owners are Security Wards LLC, Macy’s, Sears and Security Square Holding LLC.
“We want things to be redeveloped; the problem is there’s so many different ownership groups on the property, it makes it very difficult,” Bard said. “[Set the Captives Free is] going to draw people to that site and then to the mall site, and they’re going to hopefully do good things.”
Sydnor said he and some colleagues in the Maryland legislature were having conversations about whether designated Opportunity zones across the state could benefit from “additional state incentives” to further encourage investment.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, proposed in January spending $56.5 million to support development in Opportunity zones, in an effort to bolster the federal tax incentives given to those who invest in the zones.
Karen Bethea thinks the church’s investment in the area will help the community in all the ways designated Opportunity zones are meant to.
Set the Captives Free Outreach Center Inc. is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), so donations to the church are deductible. Nonprofits would “not directly benefit” from Opportunity zone programs, said Sara Luell, director of communications for Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
“However, a nonprofit could attract private investment for redevelopment of a property, therefore indirectly benefiting from the Opportunity Zone incentive,” she said in an email.
Bethea declined to comment on whether the outreach center would pursue ways to make use of those incentives in the future.
Already, Set the Captives Free has hired additional staff to help with administration, and has been paying contractors to do construction. The yet-to-be workforce development office, day care center, restaurants and other tenants coming to the property will all have to be staffed by full-time employees, Bethea said.
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“We’re literally going to be creating jobs,” she said.
The workforce development staff will host job fairs and help visitors craft resumes and practice interviews. A meeting room on the first floor will be available for community associations to use at no cost, and the educational wing of the property will host a variety of classes — focusing on topics from home improvement to money management to spiritual growth — that are open to the public.
The youth center, Karen Bethea said, will have a kitchen and a computer lab for older kids to spend time in after school. The new space in Security Square Mall will allow Set the Captives Free to increase the size and reach of its food pantry program.
Karen Bethea said she was excited to be able to expand the church’s services and give back to the community. The outreach, worship and education services that the community center will offer are what the church “owes back” to the community.
“We’re very holistic in our approach,” she said. “We’re not just interested in people’s spiritual lives. We’re interested in their mental well-being, their emotional stability. We’re interested in financially helping people learn to build wealth. We’re interested in people having healthy interpersonal skills. We’re interested in the whole person.”