Bel Air holds out hope for the troubled Tollgate mall


In the spring of 1979, Tollgate Town Center opened with great expectations among Bel Air residents. It would offer shoppers in the area an alternative to the stores at Harford Mall. There was even talk of another major store to compliment the anchors -- Kmart and Giant Food.

Thirteen years and three owners later, the promise has not been fulfilled.

Kmart and Giant remain, but most of the original lessees are gone. Some, Walker's clothing apparel among them, went out of business; others, such as the News Center, moved elsewhere. Today, 17 retail spaces are occupied and 22 are vacant.

The Tollgate Center's owner, the Polemeni Corp. of New York City, has just restructured under a Chapter 11 filing under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and is considering major renovations to the premises. But no date for work has been set.

Carol Deibel, director of planning and community development for the town of Bel Air, said she would welcome any "positive action" from the owner. "It would certainly be a boost to the area," she said. "We would gladly work along with the owners to bring new and exciting businesses to the facility."

According to Mark Mueller of Towson-based Gordon Mueller Associates, the center's local leasing agent, one plan under consideration is a "compete turnaround" of the stores on the U.S. 1 side of the center. Presently, only the backs of stores are visible from the main parking lot.

"The plan calls for the backs to become fronts and vice versa," Mr. Mueller said last week. "In essence, the mall will then become a strip center," instead of the current mall configuration.

Mr. Mueller said the stores on the south side of the center's main corridor could become offices for doctors, lawyers and similar types of services. "I really like this concept because it would make the stores visible to all shoppers," he said. "Historically, it's been proven that an enclosed shopping center doesn't succeed with a food store as an anchor. People don't food shop and then return to patronize other stores."

Kmart and Giant, which together lease more than half of the 269,441 square-foot mall, have indicated a desire to expand their stores. And in the past two months, two restaurant chains have )) made overtures about pad sites -- eateries located near the center but not in the facility.

One, a Red Lobster, could open within the next year. The other pulled out of negotiations because of financial problems.

"These negotiations took place prior to my becoming leasing agent" more than six months ago, said Mr. Mueller. "If the Red Lobster deal is finalized, it will be a definite plus for Tollgate. The restaurant is among the more successful national chains."

Bob's Big Boy and Sizzler already operate at Tollgate.

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