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The Mall in Columbia will continue to shape local, regional retail [Commentary]

Part of our series of essays from leaders imagining the future of Columbia.

As the senior general manager of The Mall in Columbia and having grown up very close to Columbia during the time it was being formed and initially developed, I have a unique view on this very special community that has just recently celebrated its 50th birthday.

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My parents, initially very skeptical about Columbia and all of its seemingly restrictive residential covenants, ended up moving to Columbia in the early 1980s to the Village of Phelps Luck. They loved the walking paths, the Interfaith Center, the convenience of the Village Center and the proximity of Columbia to both Baltimore and D.C. And they very quickly learned to appreciate and embrace those covenants that they had initially found to be so unacceptable.

We — or more accurately my mom and I — also loved The Mall in Columbia. Before moving to Columbia, we often came for the regular craft shows, the Sunday antique market and, of course, to shop. There really was nothing in the region that measured up to the retail experience. The Mall in Columbia, having opened in 1971 soon after Columbia was first developed, represented the future of shopping.

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The Mall in Columbia also served as Columbia's Main Street. It was purposely located in Columbia Town Center and connected via a pedestrian bridge to the Lakefront. The first Ball in the Mall, which attracted primarily residents of the local community, was held in 1972 and the mall often partnered with local Columbia and Howard County entities for its events and activities.

The Mall in Columbia is a community staple, though not only for Howard County but also for the six surrounding counties. Through the years the mall has continued to function as a community gathering place and residents take personal interest and have pride within every aspect of the shopping center.

The future of The Mall in Columbia is clear — it will continue to be a successful regional retail, dining and entertainment venue. Its location between the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas will allow the mall to continue to serve equally well both the local community and the broader regional market. The success of the center will attract highly desired prospective retailers and restaurants, which will ensure the mall is highly occupied and well-curated. Its success will also draw the attention of the next wave of retail — the new and innovative concepts that are forming the future of shopping centers. These concepts will include e-retailers opening brick-and-mortar locations, entertainment entities, experiences, expanded food options, non-traditional uses and other innovative concepts. The Mall in Columbia has already started to reflect the interest in the center from these new concepts such as the Fabletics store that opened at The Mall in Columbia in 2015 and Main Street Entertainment, which is opening in 2018.

Another important component to the future of The Mall in Columbia will be the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia. This will positively impact the center and expand dramatically its walkable customer base in the coming 10 to 15 years as downtown Columbia is built out with 6000+ new residential units, two hotels and up to 4.3 million square feet of office space.

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True to Columbia found Jim Rouse's vision, The Mall in Columbia through the years became a community gathering place, hosting traditions including the annual Christmas poinsettia tree and a periodic Ball in the Mall to celebrate Columbia milestones. One year, Rouse arrived at a Halloween masquerade ball at the mall dressed as a clown.

Since it first opened, The Mall in Columbia has undergone six expansions and has grown from a two-anchor, 102-store property to a regional powerhouse with six anchors and over 1.4 million square feet. It is currently undergoing the redevelopment of the second level of Sears into three new entities — Uncle Julio's restaurant, Main Street Entertainment and Barnes & Noble's new concept featuring a full-service restaurant. And it is opening additional new restaurants — Shake Shack and Walrus Oyster & Ale House — and exciting new retailers such as Z Gallerie, Lolli & Pops and Soft Surroundings.

The future is bright and exciting for The Mall in Columbia as it continues to attract those retailers that are most desirable to our regional customer and to proactively respond to the evolving state of retail.

Barbara Nicklas is senior general manager of The Mall in Columbia.Nicklas is senior general manager of The Mall in Columbia.



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