Mills Corp. officials know to the second how little time is left until the opening of their Arundel Mills megamall.
They're reminded every day that the minutes are speeding by until the 1.6 million-square-foot structure opens its doors and an estimated 100,000 shoppers get their first look at the project responsible for transforming 380 rural acres west of Baltimore-Washington International Airport into a retail complex expected to attract more than 17 million visitors each year.
Community protests have quieted, county officials are enamored with the company and it appears the only thing left is the nearly round-the-clock construction of what will be one of the largest shopping centers in the region.
As the red numbers on the digital clock in the lobby of the Arundel Mills trailer headquarters flash the countdown, everyone on the site also knows how much work they have to do before Nov. 16, when the expanses of dirt need to become paved parking, bright yellow insulation must become painted stucco, and interior rooms must be covered in drywall and filled with merchandise.
"I keep looking at this and thinking, 'Nov. 16, Nov. 16,'" said Mills Corp. senior development director Dennis Connolly, gesturing at metal beams that will change into a Burlington Coat Factory store in the next five months. "It'll happen, though. We'll open on Nov. 16." When it does, Arundel Mills will be the largest mall in Maryland, with 16 major anchors, including TJ Maxx, Saks, Bass Pro, Bed Bath & Beyond and Jillian's, a food and entertainment establishment; and 180 additional stores.
Mills Corp. - Arundel Mills' parent body - has more than 120 retail spaces committed, Connolly said, with county permit requests showing DKNY, Watch World, Mikasa, Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton and Banana Republic as some of the future tenants.
A 24-screen movie complex with a Disney-esque Egyptian pyramid appearance and a number of restaurants are planned as well.
The structure that will hold all this is immense - a racetrack configuration that will lead consumers along miles of retail space. The corridors on the long side appear to extend beyond the horizon.
They'll be divided into sections with "themes" - one decorated with murals of the bay, for example, another as Maryland farmland. Courtyards - or "oases," as the Mills people refer to them - will buffer the different neighborhoods with themes, such as a bowling alley complete with oversized bowling pins, and pinball, where patrons are supposed to feel as if they are inside the machine.
Signs and wall colors are being tested in various sections and are awaiting judgment.
"This color looks awful, and everybody wants to change it," Connolly said, pointing at a yellow wall. "But I think it will work - there'll be a lot over it."
Like the other 15 Mills Corp. malls scattered around the country, Arundel Mills will sell entertainment along with merchandise, including movie theaters, restaurants and the virtual rides at Jillian's.
The mall's creation has not been without trouble for Mills Corp., based in Arlington, Va. The project has drawn community protests and union strikes, and has weathered a construction accident that killed two workers. But evidence of the troubles seems to have disappeared. No pickets, no angry neighbors, no droves of safety inspectors are roaming the construction site - only busy construction crews and the skeleton of the center.
West County residents who had opposed the mall for environmental or anti-development reasons have largely abandoned their organized protest. Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, one of the most active neighborhood groups, has disbanded, said member Cathy M. Castellan. Although some groups have continued to monitor the construction process and Mills Corp.'s actions, some residents see the mall as inevitable and hope for the best.
"I was very against it when it first came out," said Kevin S. Fields, vice president of the Jessup Improvement Association and a member of a resident task force that has monitored the construction. "But now if it breaks down, the county will never financially recover. We can throw stones about what could have happened, but at this point it needs to succeed. It has to be an economic success to save the county."
The possible financial returns of Arundel Mills are significant. Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. estimates that the project will yield $72 million a year in taxes, with nearly $42 million going to the county, as well as 3,000 immediate jobs and another 3,000 during the next five years.
If other Mills Corp. malls are an example, Arundel Mills will also prove a huge tourist draw. In Virginia, Potomac Mills is the main tourist destination in the state, while in California, Ontario Mills draws more people each year than nearby Disneyland.
It's an obviously appealing profile for county officials, who have been working on ways to help smooth the mall's opening. A county delegation including Executive Janet S. Owens, Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan and others traveled to Nashville, Tenn., recently to evaluate the traffic and security conditions during the opening of Opry Mills. As with the other facets of the project, the county gave a glowing report.
Peggy Wall, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, and part of the delegation on the trip, said: "It was interesting to see how they [Opry Mills] handled traffic volume, getting people in and out. I left midday from the mall the day it opened, and there was very little backup."
As the army of ground-movers pushes acres of dirt, as paving machines continue working on the 6,400-slot parking lot, as the yellow insulation facing Ridge Road turns into patterned exterior wall, residents know the once-rural area is poised to change.
The Mills Corp. has plans for 130 acres of peripheral development including a gas station and minimart.
There will be new roads, new development, and many, many additional cars. And if all goes according to plan, the community will get its first glimpse of the future, right on schedule, Nov. 16.