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The ticket to mall success

The hot spot this summer in Columbia for dining and entertainment is at the mall.

Business is booming at The Mall in Columbia's open-air entertainment plaza: the group of three freestanding restaurants and the AMC movie theater that opened in December. On a Friday or Saturday night, the restaurants are packed, moviegoers wait in line to buy tickets and cars troll the parking lot in search of an elusive space.

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AMC Theatres Columbia 14 has added an entertainment anchor to the plaza and a significant boost to the mall, which is seeing significant "double digit" sales increases compared with last year, said Karen Geary, manager of the mall.

"That was really the last piece, and that was what really put the whole center on a real rocket ship in terms of additional growth and interest in the center," Geary said of the theater. "It's like it has gone into overdrive. It was busy before; it's busier now."

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AMC spokesman Rick King would not release performance data for the theater, but he said it is having a "very successful summer season."

"It performs near the top of the Baltimore market," he said.

To respond to the influx of customers, the mall is expanding the parking garage behind the restaurants to add more than 300 spaces, resulting in almost 7,000 spaces for the shopping center. The additional parking is being built on the site of the ice rink, which won't be relocated, and is scheduled to be ready by the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

That likely will be a relief to the employees and patrons of the theater and restaurants. Deneen Mazzone, manager of Champps Americana, said that since the theater opened next door to the restaurant, "There's just no place to park."

"Even for employees it's hard to find parking when they come in on a Friday for a shift at 4 p.m.," she said.

Geary said the mall has ample parking, but the closest spaces aren't always available.

"There's plenty of parking," she said. "It's just exactly where everybody wants it to be is sometimes a challenge."

Mall management had been counting on the new 65,000-square-foot theater - a long-desired plan to add more entertainment to the plaza - to attract more business to the restaurants.

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In 1999 and 2000, the Rouse Co., which owns the mall, negotiated with General Cinema Theaters Inc. and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. about opening a theater. But those plans unraveled when a weak economy hurt the theater business.

Geary said the completed entertainment plaza gives patrons the opportunity to spend a day or evening at the mall by shopping, eating and watching a movie.

That's what the Carlson family from Woodbridge, Va., does at least once a month. They make the 90-minute trek to the mall - which they began frequenting in the 1990s when Gil Carlson, an Army legal administrator, was stationed at Fort Meade - and make a day of it.

"We'll go to the movies, out to dinner and shop the mall," said Carlson, who waited about 30 minutes for a table at Uno Chicago Grill on a recent Saturday night with his wife, Barbara, and their daughter Abigail.

Geary said the mall has been pleased with the performance of the plaza's three restaurants since the theater opened.

"It really has been a mix between people understanding that they're here, as well as the new life that the cinema has breathed into it," she said of the restaurants. "It's really been a huge uptake. [The theater has] taken it from an extremely busy mall to one that's really hard to describe."

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At Champps, sales have increased about 10 percent since the theater opened, Mazzone said.

"The movie theater has definitely done something," she said.

Uno Chicago Grill opened next to Champps in May, and Kevin Hyland, the company's regional director of operations, said its sales have exceeded the company's expectations. It's slated to be one of the company's top five restaurants with its volume of sales, he said.

"I knew it was going to be very successful for us," Hyland said. "But it's doing even better than what we thought, probably 20 percent better than what we thought."

Next door at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, where a wait for a table can be more than an hour on a Friday or Saturday night, the theater has contributed to a "noticeable" sales increase, said Jon Parsonnet, the company's local operating partner.

"We're very happy the movie theater decided to stop by," Parsonnet said. "We wish them continued success."

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The plaza offers an entertainment component that complements the mall, a concept that has been rising in popularity nationwide since 1999, said Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The plaza is also part of a hybrid concept of mall designs, melding indoor and outdoor options. Outdoor centers have been gaining popularity in the past five years, Duker said.

"Right now, what we're seeing in the mood of the industry is they're taking the roof off, making them more outdoor centers," Duker said. "It's just keeping it refreshed. The malls are looking to reinvent themselves."

Similar development is happening around the region. In Annapolis, the old Parole Plaza is being demolished, and in its place will be a "lifestyle center" that will incorporate stores, restaurants, offices and homes. Hunt Valley Mall is being redeveloped, with planned shops and restaurants along an open-air main street.

That environment exists at The Avenue at White Marsh, which has businesses, restaurants and a movie theater lining a main street.

The bustle of mall life in Columbia comes as efforts are being made to make the planned community's downtown an active urban core. Preliminary plans are under way to transform Little Patuxent Parkway - which loops around the mall - into a main street-type of atmosphere with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways linking commercial and residential areas.

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New residential development is under way around the mall. The Governor's Grant townhouse project is nearing completion and will add 127 homes. Nearby, a 156-unit "active adult" apartment complex is being constructed.

Near Lake Kittamaqundi, a five-story condominium complex is being built, and a condominium that could be 25 stories with 10,000 square feet of commercial space is proposed.


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