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Times a-changing at TownMall of Westminster

Times a-changing at TownMall of Westminster
Shawn Mullins and Isaiah Rushe, right, gaming experts on the staff of Battleground Event Center look on as, from left, Anthony Murray, 19, of Taneytown, Gabe Goodrich, 18, of Westminster, and Parker Warehime, 15, of Taneytown participate in a Fortnite tournament at Battleground Event Center in TownMall of Westminster Friday, July 5, 2019. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

TownMall of Westminster, at times the center of rumors of declining fortunes, will be welcoming five new businesses Monday afternoon.

Skayl, a defense contractor, Battleground, a video gaming lounge, Sweet Additions, a bakery, The Mermaid Movement, an experience-based company focused on ocean conservation and Hackney Haunts, an upcoming haunted house, will all be honored at a 3:30 to 5 p.m. reception and ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to a media release from the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. The reception will be held at Skayl, accessible by an exterior door between the entrances to Belk and the former Sears location.

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It’s good news for a mall that has also lost longtime and signature tenants in the past year, from Sears — part of a larger corporate collapse of the American department store chain — to Chik-fil-A to Christian book store The Mustard Seed, a mall staple since 2003. Though according to Sam Himmelrich, president of the Baltimore-based real estate firm Himmelrich and Associates, which has owned the mall since December 2017, those departures are regrettable but not debilitating.

“Malls everywhere will always have tenants joining and some leaving,” Himmelrich wrote in an email. “TownMall attempts to retain good tenants whenever possible and while we’re disappointed with move-outs a single tenant leaving does not affect our view of the mall. We continue to believe that the mall is the preeminent retail property in Carroll County.”

Mike McMullin, president of the chamber, doesn’t put too much weight on those departures either, or the rumor mill.

“If you believe all the different rumors that you hear, you would have thought they would have closed a couple years ago,” he said. “But the fact is they are still out there and working diligently to keep that place active, open and to bring different types of business in there. I’m excited about it.”

The idea of malls as a place to shop for clothes may be changing, McMullin suggests, in favor of malls as a center of experience.

“I mean open up a place like Battleground, that’s a pretty unique experience,” he said, “And then what they are doing there at COB51 and the movies.”

COB51, an art studio that allows people to create their own projects, relocated to the mall from Main Street Westminster in 2018, while Battleground, a 21st century take on the old arcade, with high definition monitors and seats set up for social play of console and PC games, opened in May.

Many of the businesses being celebrated Monday have a similar experiential focus.

“Here’s the thing: people aren’t going to malls anymore to shop, they are going to have events,” said Aly Glover, owner of The Mermaid Movement. "The mall I noticed was opening places like Battleground, or the Fit and Fun. Those are all in the mall and people go there to have experiences. I wanted to add to that."

The Mermaid Movement hosts events for children and adults that combine fun with education about ocean and environmental education, Glover said, and 10% of event proceeds are donated to ocean conservation groups. That can mean themed birthday parties with age-appropriate discussion of ocean ecology or events aimed more at a college or adult audience.

“We have a professor from Loyola, she is a psychology professor and she has done a couple of classes, one of them being the ‘psychology of mermaids,'" Glover said.

Glover opened her store in June at the suggestion of her 11-year-old daughter.

“I had originally started a mermaid convention to help educate on ocean conservation, to not use single-use plastics,” she said. “It was just going to be an annual thing, but my daughter said, ‘why don’t you have a store where you combine that stuff?’”

Hackney Haunts will also be experience based — a haunted house — though it will not be opening to the public until October, according to Jason Hackney, who owns the pop-up business with his wife Sarah.

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“We’ll start with a small space in the mall this year,” he said. “I thought about renting out the whole [former] Sears, but I didn’t want to get in over my head.”

Hackney said they chose TownMall because it was the only suitable location they could find after their private Halloween party grew too large for their home.

“We started out seven or eight years ago having our own Halloween parties at our house,” he said. “We started out with 50 people, and last year we had like 500. We shut down the street and everything.”

If all goes well, Hackney said, they will open the store up again around Christmas for a Krampus theme, and perhaps something for Valentine's Day as well.

Sweet Additionz is not an experience-based business, unless home baked goods are considered an experience, but owner Amanda Cristie Eades, of Reisterstown, is counting on people at the mall coming by regardless.

“We make home-baked goods with recipes from my grandmother that I sort of redid, put my own new spin to the them,” she said. “The day of the ribbon-cutting I will be giving out samples. I am in the food court at the end next to the pizza place.”

Eades said she was initially looking for a kitchen only, with the notion of offering baked goods only at events, but after seeing the lack of food offerings at the mall, and discussion with the management there, she decided to open a retail bakery too.

“Eventually, I will be doing wholesale as well,” she said.

Skayl may be something of an outlier. While holiday themed pop-up stores may have existed in malls even during their 1980s heyday, a global communications solutions company working with the military and aerospace situating their headquarters in a mall could be an all-new type of tenancy.

“We actually moved from above a car wash to here, Duke’s Car Wash,” said Sonya Hand, director of strategy and marketing. “This is our headquarters; we actually have two satellite offices, one in Boston and one in Phoenix, also. Most of our software engineers are here and we needed space to grow.”

A guarantee Skayl could customize their space as needed and connection of the mall to the Westminster fiber network proved winning enticements, Hand said, and while Skayl won’t be generating much foot traffic, the company’s software engineers certainly do shop amd eat in the mall.

“It’s awfully convenient to have everything right here,” she said. “It’s funny because right before we started looking at this place, I heard a story on NPR about dead and dying malls and what are some of the creative things you can do. They were talking about business pop-ups, like the Halloween stores.”

“There’s that,” Hand said, “but there’s also this kind of model, which could be really great.”

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How that new model could work with whatever long-term plans the mall ownership has in mind is still up in the air. Asked about those plans, Himmelrich remained vague.

“We strive to continually improve the property and over time we’ll likely embark on a larger scale redevelopment but those plans are not imminent," he wrote in an email. "In the meantime, we’re thrilled to have new tenants like Battleground and COB51 moving in. We’re thankful for the community’s continued support of the mall and are excited about its prospects going forward.”

If you go

What: TownMall of Westminster business ribbon-cutting

When: 3:30 p.m.-5 p.m. Monday July 22

Where: Skayl, between the entrances to Belk and Sears.

Cost: Free

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