The Macy's and Sears stores anchoring Harford Mall in Bel Air will remain open, avoiding for now the fate of dozens of their sister stores across the country slated to close in the coming months.
But the plight of the two national retailers is likely to linger like a dark cloud over Harford County's largest shopping during the coming months.
"As a town we obviously would not want to see those stores close, and so we're happy that at this point in time the Macy's and the Sears are not going to be leaving this area," Bel Air Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich said Thursday.
She noted her department monitors trends involving large retailers closely, and Macy's struggles have been on the department's radar for about a year and a half.
Heidenreich said she has been discussing the situation with Lauri Altman, the mall's general manager. She said Altman is an "excellent manager" and praised her leadership in keeping the mall a sustainable shopping and dining destination that appeals to multiple age groups and provides the shopping "experience" they want.
"It's good for the seniors, it's good for all varieties of populations to have a mall where people can go into a climate-controlled environment and have these experiences," Heidenreich said.
"I can tell you, bottom line, neither store is closing at Harford," Stacey Keating, a spokesperson for the mall, said Thursday.
The 45-year-old mall at Baltimore Pike and Route 24, along with a strip center "annex" on Boulton Street whose tenants are Best Buy, PetSmart, Office Depot and Dollar Tree, is owned by CBL and Associates Properties, of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Keating said CBL officials "have excellent relationships with our department store tenants" and "maintain open lines of communication with them."
She noted the Harford Mall Macy's is a "very high-performing location" for the retailer.
The mall, along with the Bel Air Plaza, Bel Air Town Center and Tollgate Marketplace, comprise about 70 percent of the retail space inventory in the Town of Bel Air, according to Heidenreich. The Route 24 and Baltimore Pike area has the highest concentration of retailers in the county.
Heidenreich said the mall, with its multiple shopping and restaurant options, is "a huge component" of that 70 percent figure.
"It's a really critical economic driver, from a commercial, retail and restaurant standpoint," she said.
Macy's listed Wednesday 68 stores that will close in various states, although none in Maryland were listed – company officials plan to close 100 stores nationwide. Sears Holdings Corp. will close 42 Sears stores, along with 108 Kmart stores, within the first few months of the new year.
Sears Holdings listed on its website the Sears and Kmarts that will close through the end of March. The only store in Maryland that will close is a Kmart on North Point Boulevard outside Baltimore. There are no Kmarts left in Harford County, nor do Sears or Macy's have any other Harford stores other than at the mall in Bel Air.
"We'll continue to monitor what is happening with Sears as a company, and if the opportunity presented itself to recapture the Sears space we would look at it as a great opportunity to bring new retail, dining or entertainment options to the property," Keating said of Harford Mall.
She again stressed the Macy's at Harford Mall is "one of the highest performing in our portfolio."
CBL owns or holds interest in 136 properties nationwide, including 84 regional malls or open-air centers, according to Keating.
She said the firm has "a long track record" of redeveloping anchor locations. If one tenant moves out, they can bring in either another retailer as an anchor or "junior anchor," or the space is subdivided for smaller shops, plus restaurants or entertainment elements.
"An anchor store closing isn't necessarily the worst-case scenario because we're able to recapture that space and repurpose it into a more productive use," Keating explained.
Macy's and Sears officials anticipate the store closings will affect thousands of employees nationwide. While Sears and Macy's employees in Bel Air will not be affected, community services are available for employees of any company in Harford that is closing or downsizing its workforce.
"Our Office of Economic Development stands ready to assist, and we work very closely with the Susquehanna Workforce Network – they have rapid response teams and tools to help affected workers," Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for the Harford County government, said.
The Susquehanna Workforce Network is a nonprofit organization that assists workers in Cecil and Harford counties.
"In general, we work very closely with the companies that are downsizing or closing with a goal of trying to get the employees re-employed as quickly as possible," Executive Director Bruce England said.
The network can, through its Rapid Response and Out-Placement Assistance services, educate workers on how to get unemployment insurance, search for jobs, assess their skills and interests, upgrade their skills and credentials, review the labor market and plan their careers.