Customers flock to Mall's new wing; Columbia's addition boasts Nordstrom, 40 specialty retailers


With all the subtlety of tipsy tourists gliding down New Orleans' Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, thousands of eager shoppers danced their way behind a jazz band through the front doors of Nordstrom at The Mall in Columbia for the first time Friday.

As the Columbia Herald Trumpeters serenaded the crowd with the jazz standard "When The Saints Go Marching In," the mall's new and improved wing anchored by retail giant Nordstrom and 40 other stores made its long-awaited debut.

Colorful confetti was fired from miniature cannons. Free cupcakes were handed out to mothers pushing baby carriages along French limestone walkways. Parking lots were filled by midday.

Alton J. Scavo, the Rouse Co.'s senior vice president and the driving force behind downtown Columbia's cosmetic and economic turnaround, wore the contented look of a businessman who knew he had scored a direct hit.

Many others agreed.

"We were definitely going to cut school for this, but Hurricane Floyd got us out of that," said 17-year-old Oakland Mills High School senior Jillian Siegle, while her classmate, Kristi Baccaglini, 17, nodded in agreement. "These new stores will definitely give Columbia a better name. This makes the mall a whole lot more open and classier. We'll be in here all the time."

Amanda Thalheimer of Clarksville zipped through racks of children's clothes in Nordstrom while her husband, David, fed one of their three children.

"Oh, every woman in the county has been waiting for this day for years," Amanda Thalheimer said. "My girlfriends and I used to make the trek down to Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia just to go to a real mall. Now we won't have to go that far anymore.

"Howard County is one of the most affluent counties in the country," she said. "I've always wondered why it took them so long to get these kind of upscale stores to come here."

When The Mall in Columbia opened in 1971, Howard County Executive James N. Robey was a young county police officer who helped with crowd control.

"Now I look around, and there's so much excitement" about the expansion project, Robey said. "Five hundred new jobs in 40 stores were created. From a county executive's standpoint, this mall really makes me excited. I see income tax and sales tax. I get excited when I'm here just thinking about all the tax dollars."

'Nordstrom was the key'

The Mall in Columbia was anchored by the Hecht Co., J.C. Penney and Sears, with 190 specialty stores. Hecht's added a third floor in 1997 and a Lord & Taylor made its debute to fanfare last year.

The Rouse Co. and Whiting-Turner, the Baltimore-based general contractor, used their influence to attract 98-year-old Nordstrom Inc., whose sales in 1998 were $5 billion, to the mall.

Once Nordstrom announced its intention to build a 173,000-square-foot store, other merchants -- Aveda, Restoration Hardware, Origins, Godiva, Bose and Le Gourmet Chef -- were eager to come on board, said Chris Carlaw, development director for the Rouse Co.

"To hold on to the market strength of Columbia and to enlarge that market penetration, Nordstrom was the key," Carlaw said. "That made it worth their while to come this way."

Columbia's mall was "clearly outdated and it needed a lot of freshening up," he added. "Hopefully, this will be enough of a magnet to draw new people and [longtime customers] who may've stopped coming to the mall."

Expansion to continue

The new wing is set to continue its expansion.

Banana Republic and Bebe will move in this year, and General Cinema Corp. plans to build a multiplex movie theater next to the new parking garage near Nordstrom.

A 25,000-square-foot Bibelot bookstore and Donna's Cafe will be added, as will three sit-down restaurants.

Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the mall's estimated $70 million expansion will create jobs -- and more important, retail revenue -- for the county.

"It's more money in motion in the community," he said. "People with those jobs will be spending more of their own money in the county."

Story also said that Nordstrom's presence will attract shoppers who have been going to rivals such as White Marsh Mall, Towson Town Center, Montgomery Mall and Owings Mills Mall.

"Nordstrom as an anchor is a magnet," he said. "A lot of upscale retail dollars have been spent elsewhere. Some of those shoppers and their money will return to the mall."

Story said the openings of Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor's will boost the retail reputation of the county.

"It's verification that Columbia and Howard County are upscale, world-class communities," he said. "This is a major-league community."

No more trips to Montgomery

With good weather and healthy word-of-mouth, the opening weekend for the mall's new wing should beat expectations, Carlaw said.

Columbia resident Nona Grant, an elementary school teacher in Prince George's County, said the appeal should extend far beyond a couple of sunny autumn days.

"This is like a little answered prayer," Grant said. "I don't think I'll ever have to drive down to Montgomery County to go to a mall again."

Grant headed toward Nordstrom's jam-packed cosmetic counters. "I'll be warming up my credit card," she said.

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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