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Macy closing Hunt Valley Mall store Plans raise concern about future of troubled center


R.H. Macy & Co. Inc. announced yesterday that it will shut its 200-worker Hunt Valley Mall store by Aug. 1, raising fears about the survival of other retailers in the troubled mall.

The New York-based retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late January, said it was also closing seven other stores nationwide, affecting 1,850 workers.

The Hunt Valley store will be the second Macy-owned department store to be shuttered in Maryland this year. The debt-laden company has said it will close its I. Magnin store at White Flint Mall in Kensington on June 7.

Macy's employees at Hunt Valley said they learned of the closure in a letter yesterday and were told they would receive four weeks of severance plus earned vacation pay. Macy also said it would help employees explore other job prospects in the company. But at least one employee said no job information had been provided.

Shoppers at the 11-year-old Hunt Valley Macy's said yesterday they were saddened by the news.

They said they liked the Hunt Valley Macy's because it was less

crowded than other local Macy's stores.

"I feel at home here," said Mary Jane Edmunds, who lives closer to the Owings Mills Macy's but drives the extra distance to the Hunt Valley store.

"It's a personal thing. The clerks here are excellent. . . . If it meant keeping it open, I'd come every week."

"There are too few department stores today," said shopper Mary Lynn Alsruhe. "They're just becoming a thing of the past, and that's unfortunate."

The Hunt Valley Mall, off Interstate 83 near a number of corporate headquarters, has had a troubled 11-year history. Opposed by many neighbors from the start, it has long had trouble finding retailers to fill its storefronts.

The mall is 83 percent rented, said mall manager Gerard M. Cecci, giving it a vacancy rate more than double the national rate of 8 percent and much higher than those of other area malls.

Merchants at Hunt Valley Mall expressed varying degrees of concern about how the loss of one of the mall's two major department stores would affect business at their stores.

Alison Webb, an employee at The Camera Shop, said most of her customers come to the mall specifically for photography merchandise.

"I think we're going to be OK," she said.

Mr. Cecci predicted the loss of Macy's won't hurt the other tenants. He said he and mall owner Kravco Co. of King of Prussia, Pa., were "surprised and concerned" by the closure announcement, but that they were going ahead with plans to revamp the mall.

Kravco still is talking with shop owners about a possible movie theater or other additions. And, he said, the company will "work very hard to bring in another anchor" store to replace Macy's, he said, adding that he believes the mall is still "a strong and viable center."

But others were more pessimistic.

"This is going to hurt a lot," said Linda Myers, assistant manager at the Chess King men's clothing store.

Ms. Myers said business has been slow for a long time, but that Macy's helped attract shoppers to the mall. "We do well when they hold their one-day sales," she said.

Ms. Myers said she had hoped that the new light-rail stop at Hunt Valley would help turn things around. But now, she looks outside her store and sees six or seven closed storefronts nearby and no hope for a quick rebound.

"It is kind of depressing," she said.

An economist who has worked closely with mall managers said that because Hunt Valley has only one other anchor store -- Sears -- smaller stores at the mall "are definitely in trouble."

Carl Steidtman, vice president and chief economist for Management Horizons, the retailing consulting arm of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm, said that even under the best of circumstances, the loss of Macy's would cause a temporary drop in sales for many mall tenants.

"The worst case is that [an anchor] store stays dark for a long period, other tenants drift away and the mall turns kind of empty," he said.

"People are becoming more destination-oriented . . . and "if all you've got is Sears in this day and age, that is not a real good draw."

Macy said that all eight of the stores scheduled for closing had "unsatisfactory" profits, slow sales growth or buildings in need of refurbishing.

Company spokesman James Fingeroth said Macy had no plans to close any more of the 112 department stores, including three in the Baltimore area, that will remain after the closings.

But he said those plans could change because the company is operating under federal bankruptcy court protection.

Mr. Fingeroth said he did not know whether Macy would hold a going-out-of business sale at the stores to be closed.

Yesterday's announcement represented the second round of closings since the retailer sought bankruptcy protection Jan. 27 in the wake of a poor Christmas season that left it unable to pay suppliers.

The company is also burdened by billions of dollars in debt from its $3.6 billion buyout of the company by a group led by management in 1986 and the $1.1 billion purchase of I. Magnin and Bullock's in 1988.

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