Shopping malls always have been suburbia's Main Street. Now they are becoming suburbia's museum, theater, amusement park and classroom, too.
In Woodlawn, children take field trips to Security Square Mall to see robotic models of prehistoric sea creatures. In Glen Burnie, high school students learn how to prepare job resumes and apply for college during meetings at Marley Station. And in Silver NTC Spring, playing miniature golf and splashing in the surf could become part of a shopping trip.
Such offerings reflect a nationwide trend, as malls try to lure more visitors amid increasing competition from large discount retailers, factory outlets and even trendy boutiques.
And as malls change -- one California mall used a National Endowment for the Arts grant to create an artist-in-residency program -- they are revising their role in suburban life. In some cases, they are fulfilling their role as a town center, a community anchor amid suburban sprawl.
"The central force used to be the schools or the church. That is not the case anymore," said Janice A. Davis, a businesswoman who is part of a task force considering whether Silver Spring should support a proposed megamall. "A mall, if properly managed and structured in terms of its services, can meet those needs from another perspective."
Nowhere is the trend more evident than at megamalls. The nation's largest shopping center -- the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. -- has 350 stores, a 7-acre indoor amusement park and draws 40 million visitors annually. In downtown Silver Spring, developers have proposed a smaller complex -- named the American Dream -- that would include a miniature golf course and a wave pool.
Of course, the malls' main goal -- from Maryland to California -- is to attract shoppers, and some events are designed to boost sales on slow days. But at times, shopping seems almost secondary. Rouse Co.'s Santa Monica Place in Los Angeles, for example, recently had an art exhibit that focused attention on the wastefulness of American consumerism.
Hardly an event to encourage visitors to rush out and buy. But Robin Faulk, the mall's marketing manager, said shopping centers have a duty to offer not only goods, but ideas.
"No other areas in America are left that can take this on," said Mr. Faulk. "The only place where people get together and walk side by side from every ethnic and cultural group is a shopping center."
Santa Monica Place stages plays and has an art gallery that is listed in the cultural events calendar of the Los Angeles Times. With the mall's NEA grant, an artist named Zoot helped children create wearable art; another artist exhibited 20 pairs of shoes worn by mall employees; and another displayed verbal and written statements from disabled people.
"We are still scratching the surface of what is possible," Mr. Faulk said.
Consider the changes at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn.
Last year, to attract visitors, the mall exhibited a miniature model of the White House. This year, marketing director Lori Marler decided to grab people's attention by erecting 30-foot sea dinosaurs that roar and belch smoke.
"When malls first opened, it was a matter of convenience," Ms. Marler said. "Now you have to work a lot harder to please the customer."
The "Real Sea Monsters" exhibit comes from Dinamation International Corp., the company that supplied the robots for the Maryland Science Museum's dinosaur show.
Ms. Marler said the exhibit is a "major undertaking," costing more than $20,000. Security Square has enlisted the help of Comcast Cablevision, the Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel to help defray the cost.
And there's more to the exhibit than looking at rubbery robots. Teachers receive a field trip guide that includes lesson plans, games and puzzles to help them tell students about the seven creatures on display.
The mall's motives are both altruistic and economic. The educational exhibit gives visitors the chance to learn for free, but Ms. Marler also hopes that those who come to see the show buy something.
Lynn Press, a third-grade teacher at Chadwick Elementary School in Woodlawn who was planning to take 90 pupils to see the exhibit, found nothing odd about taking students on a field trip to a mall.
"They're going to learn something," she said.
Most of the preschoolers from Volunteers of America Child Early Learning Center who visited the display recently had their gaze firmly fixed on the sea creatures, watching wide-eyed as the giant octopus strangled an eel. When the creature let out a hiss, they jumped back in fright.
"They have been studying about dinosaurs," said Harriet Gaither, a parent helping to chaperon the 51 children. "This exhibit is excellent."
Deion Webb, 2, wasn't sure he liked the octopus, but when he turned around, he saw something he did like -- a Champs Sports Shop. "I want to see a basketball," he said, tugging on his mother's hand.
At Owings Mills, Columbia and White Marsh, mall managers have created children's fun days to lure shoppers on slow weekday mornings. The malls hire singers, storytellers and magicians to perform.
"It's more of a social event," said Karen Pospisil, marketing manager of White Marsh Mall. It also pays. Usually the parents and children get a bite to eat and shop.
Marley Station has developed a program for older children by creating advisory boards of middle school and high school youngsters. The boards help the mall's marketing experts keep up with what young people are thinking. The students can tailor monthly meetings to their interests, such as selecting colleges, choosing a career and preparing a resume.
"We feel we need to give something back to the community," Marley Station marketing director David Casper said.
Public service events always have been a part of the mission of Columbia Mall. From the beginning, the mall was Columbia's town center, and it's still the place where the Columbia Soccer Association holds team sign-ups and where the United Way launches its Howard County campaigns.
"It's convenient. It's accessible. People just like coming out to the mall. Parking is great, you can get in and get out," said Nan Waranch, director of public affairs for the United Way of Central Maryland.
The Baltimore Health Department has found Mondawmin Shopping Center an ideal place to set up its reproductive health clinic for young people and its immunization van for preschoolers.
"And it has helped the mall as much as the mall has helped us," Dena Green, a Health Department program director, said, noting that the clinic has attracted thousands of young customers to Mondawmin.
Melina Turtle, a community health educator who helps organize the immunization van visits to Mondawmin, believes malls will continue to capture American shoppers by offering them more than stores.
"I think they seem to be expanding in the role they're playing," she said. "It's a little community unto itself."