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Cranberry Mall's sale to group is finalized; New owners promise to fill stores, make center 'exciting'


After a year and a half on the market, Westminster's Cranberry Mall has been formally sold to a property group that is promising physical improvements as well as better marketing and advertising for Carroll County's largest mall.

In a letter hand-delivered yesterday to on-site store owners and mailed to those not at the mall, a representative for the new owners announced their intention to help the struggling shopping complex at Routes 140 and 27, but offered few details.

"We are committed to revitalizing the Mall and to procuring a wide range of dynamic new merchants," wrote Brian F. Ricklin, an investment adviser and fund manager for the new owners.

"Together with your continued cooperation, we will rapidly transform the Cranberry Mall into a premier retail venue. We recognize and appreciate that a strengthened Mall will be a more integral part of the Westminster community and a more vital provider of goods and services to the residents of Carroll County."

Shopco Regional Malls, which has owned the shopping center since 1988, had agreed to sell it in February for $33.5 million to a newly incorporated subsidiary of Phoenix Four, identified in federal Securities and Exchange Commission documents as a property group licensed in the Bahamas.

Cranberry's retail sales have dipped, to $19 million in the first eight months of last year from $20.4 million during the same period in 1998, SEC documents show. In that time, occupancy slipped from 81 percent to 75 percent.

Owners vow turnaround

The sale to Cranberry Mall Properties LLC was finalized Monday -- the date Shopco was obligated to resume making mortgage payments on the property. In March 1999, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. agreed to allow Shopco to defer payment of the principal of the loan until April 1, provided that the owners continue to pay annual interest of more than $2 million.

Reached yesterday at his New York office, Ricklin declined to comment on the final purchase price. Earlier SEC filings indicated the final sale price could vary by 3 percent before the deal closed.

Ricklin said the new owners are "prepared to invest the necessary capital -- to make the merchants feel comfortable and make this place exciting and filled up. It's what we do."

Ricklin said mall management will meet with tenants to discuss plans to improve the mall.

Mixed reaction

Under the new ownership, the mall will be managed by Barker Pacific Group Inc., a real estate company with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. Founded in 1983, the company specializes in leasing and acquiring substantially preleased office buildings, and retail and residential projects, according to a company brochure. Barker Pacific has completed or is developing more than $850 million in commercial projects across the country.

Merchants at the mall expressed mixed reaction yesterday to the news. Some had not received notice of the sale.

"The mall being sold doesn't mean nothing," said Marian Spyer, an optician with Sterling Optical. "What we want to see is action. Anybody could buy it, and it could be just as bad as before."

Like many merchants who have seen business decline as neighboring businesses have closed, Kim Boyd, owner of the Brass Hen restaurant, is eager for change. She hopes the new owners will attract new stores. And she hopes new stores will bring new customers to her restaurant.

Merchant's wishes

With Western Maryland College and Carroll Community College nearby, Boyd said, she hopes the new owners will lease space to retailers, such as Old Navy and the Gap, that could attract high school and college students.

"I would like them to fill empty spots, to get more people to come -- and then I'll do OK because people need to eat," said Boyd, who has been at the mall for nine years and has delayed remodeling the restaurant because of the uncertainties about ownership.

Shopco put the 525,000-square-foot mall up for sale in August 1998, three months after the mall's largest tenant, Caldor, filed for bankruptcy and then closed. A prospective buyer agreed in December 1998 to pay $39.7 million for the property but withdrew the offer.

In July, Shopco agreed to sell the mall for $34 million to Barker Pacific Group, which in November transferred its rights to a subsidiary of Phoenix Four.

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