First, they killed Main Street. Now shopping malls are bringing it back to suburbia.
When Rebecca and Richard Maltz wanted to buy a house recently, they went to The Mall in Columbia. When Christina Norico needs a baby sitter, she drops off her toddler at Owings Mills Mall. And when Ann Bailey needed to correct her nearsightedness, she, too, found help at the Columbia mall.
That aging, concrete dinosaur -- the shopping mall -- is being remade into a place that not only sells the perfect pair of shoes but also offers hospital clinics, church services, laser eye surgery and online stock trading.
More and more, the mall wants to be the center of your community.
"People are using the mall as almost a surrogate city, and it's clearly the wave of the future," says Michael D. Beyard, vice president and senior resident fellow at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research group dealing with real estate and planning issues.
"They started as entities devoted to retail, with parking lots around them. Today, malls are starting to form more of a town center. What we're seeing is the second generation of shopping malls."
Since the first fully enclosed mall opened near Minneapolis in 1956, malls have been meeting the shopping and entertainment needs of a growing suburban population. Most of Baltimore County's 720,000 residents, for instance, live within 20 minutes of one of the county's eight malls.
As lives get more hectic, people want one place that has it all. At the same time, malls face a huge challenge from discount outlets and warehouse-style stores.
As a result, they have been increasingly innovative in their efforts to lure businesses and customers, says Eugene Fram, professor of marketing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
It started with the collapse of the real estate market in the late 1980s, which left malls with empty stores.
"Whether it was out of desperation or inspiration, developers were frantically searching for tenants," Beyard says. "They found chapels, financial planners and tax services to fill the void."
On the lower level of the Bergen Mall in Paramus, N.J., hundreds of people drop by the St. Therese Roman Catholic Chapel for services that are offered three times a day, six days a week. Past the deli counters and boutiques, shoppers come for confession and comfort in a makeshift sanctuary with stained-glass windows, an altar and candles.
"We get policemen, nurses, firemen and teachers who couldn't make morning Mass," says the Rev. Zachary Monet. "We get the 'mall-ites' who never spend money at the mall but come only to socialize.
"It's a mystery to me, but I've been busier here than I've been anywhere in my life."
In many cases, people are searching for something far less profound than salvation.
The Maltzes went to the Columbia mall in April looking for a new wardrobe. Instead, they stumbled on a Coldwell Banker Real Estate kiosk and agent Paul Buckmaster, who helped them sell their home and buy a new one in Ellicott City.
Carter Melbourne, who operates three mall-based real estate offices, says shoppers become clients every day.
"When people come to this area to interview for a new job and they want something to eat, they're sent to the mall," Melbourne says. "There's a carousel outside of our office, and family fun days bring mothers and children crawling all over the place on Thursdays. They're exactly the type of profile we're interested in."
Ann Bailey, a seventh-grade science teacher in Howard County, was checking out the Columbia mall's new wing, which opened two months ago, when she came across the Visual Freedom Center.
'Kind of weird'
"It was really kind of weird," says Bailey, a Columbia resident who originally planned to have laser eye surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"I thought, 'Ugh. In a mall?' But then I found they were really nice and helpful, and they knew what they were doing. Plus, it was closer to home. It was great."
Almost any day of the week, shoppers stop at the center's windows to watch an ophthalmologist peel back the outer layer of a patient's eye to begin the procedure. A large projector and drop-down screen offer a close-up view of the surgery. The center gave Bailey a video of her surgery to show her students.
At an extreme is the Mall of America in Minnesota, which offers a hotel, travel agencies, amusement park rides, a wedding chapel and more than 400 stores.
Many other malls try to offer something for everyone on a smaller scale.
Family fun days at Rouse Co. centers such as Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall and Columbia bring thousands of mothers and preschoolers to their feet, dancing and singing in the mall. At some malls, Kid Safe programs fingerprint children and inoculate them for school.
The University of California, Los Angeles holds extension courses in local malls. Penn State University opened a center in Chambersburg Mall where shoppers can attend lectures and research information in a library.
Willowbrook Mall in New Jersey offers a Stress Reduction Center where shoppers can listen to New Age music, sit in vibrating chairs and meditate.
Valet, bus services
Some malls offer valet services and coat-check counters. Others provide bus service for the elderly from nursing homes.
At Owings Mills Mall, Cathy's Creative will take a child off a harried parent's hands for $8 an hour. While mom or dad gets a haircut, buys a shirt or watches a movie in peace, the owner, Cathy S. Schroeder, keeps the children elbow deep in modeling clay and building blocks.
"I never would have dreamed this would be something provided for by the mall," says Norico, who drops off her 23-month-old son at least once a week.
For many, just walking through malls, which are often lined with trees and benches, provides a sense of community and safety that is sometimes lacking outside.
Walking and talking
Irvin Allen, 75, and his pals long ago traded the sidewalks of their Owings Mill neighborhood for the comfort and security of the mall. Hours before the first store opens, they meet at Owings Mills Mall for a power walk.
Once they're finished, they shove four or five tables together to swap stories, drink coffee and eat at the food court.
"When my wife comes back from here, I ask her, 'Who did you see up there?' " says Allen, "You used to go to a town center to meet your friends. Now you go to the mall."
That's what mall owners and many businesses are betting on as they continue looking for ways to meet consumers' needs, even their final ones.
Amid some controversy, Consumers Choice Monuments and Caskets in Louisville is considering moving to a mall in Kentucky.
"It's smart marketing to offer you all types of services and businesses in one place," says Fram, the marketing expert. "You can live and die at the mall nowadays."