Editorial: Despite Sears closing, TownMall's future is on the upswing

It’s been almost a year since Baltimore-based real estate firm Himmelrich Associates acquired TownMall of Westminster, and in that time there have been quite a few positive changes.

Almost immediately after Himmelrich acquired TownMall, it brought in The Gym (formerly known as Musclemine at its previous location on Fair Avenue) to fill the space vacated by Gold’s Gym. Origo Coffee, a shop that sells small-batch Ethiopian-style coffee roasted in Hampstead, opened not long after. In the spring, the mall and Chamber of Commerce celebrated grand openings of the Westminster Barber Shop and COB51, a do-it-yourself art studio.


Then, in May, Reisterstown-based R/C Theatres took over the movies at TownMall from Regal Cinemas. This month, R/C began the long-awaited process of upgrading the seats at the theater from the stadium seats of old to more modern-day electronic recliners. At least eight other stores are listed as “opening soon” on TownMall’s website, another positive sign.

On Monday, though, TownMall learned it would be losing one of its largest tenants, Sears, by the end of the year. Sears Holdings Corp., the parent company of the struggling Sears and Kmart retail chains, is closing five Maryland stores, including the Westminster location, according to bankruptcy court filings.

The loss does not seem to be phasing the new owners, however. “We’re not shocked given Sears’ ongoing size reduction, we certainly were not surprised,” Himmelrich Associates President Sam Himmelrich told us. “We continue to look forward to opportunities to improve the mall and this doesn’t get in the way of our current thoughts on how to reformat and improve the space.”

Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. As the year has gone on, Himmelrich’s vision for TownMall has had a clear theme: local.

The shops that have been added are all largely locally or regionally owned businesses that outgrew existing spaces in the community or that would benefit from the foot traffic that --- while nowhere near what it was in the 1990s — a mall still brings. It’s a wise move.

Local small business owners that set up shop in the mall can also be advocates for it in the community, whether that is encouraging other small business owners to join them or helping to dismiss persistent rumors of TownMall’s demise.

That model can be seen in the success of the local shop, The Mustard Seed, a Christian gift and book store, that has been a staple of TownMall for 15 years.

Each of these businesses are also offering something that large retailers like Sears couldn’t — a product, service or experience that you simply cannot purchase online at or at your nearby Walmart.

However, the loss of Sears is a different animal. There is a significant amount of retail space that will need to be filled once the anchor store closes, and it’s unlikely a single local or regional retailer will want to claim all of that space. It will be interesting to see whether Himmelrich chooses to replace it with another anchor or looks for multiple smaller shops to fill the vacancy instead.

Across the country, other malls have replaced Sears anchors with movie theaters, gyms and sporting goods stores like Dick’s, according to Business Insider. TownMall already has those. Some have seen grocery stores fill in those vacancies. While there is no shortage of grocers in Westminster, a upscale store like a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s may be welcome additions.

One other possibility is an off-price chain, like Burlington Coat Factory or Nordstrom Rack. These off-price retailers have been seeing success as brick-and-mortar stores where department stores like Sears and JCPenney’s have been struggling. JPMorgan said these off-price retailers are expected to see sales growth approaching $19 billion by 2021, according to a CNBC report from last fall. The addition of one of these off-price retailers likely would be better for TownMall than if Sears remained open.

Whatever fills the vacancy, things seem to be trending in the right direction for TownMall of Westminster.