When it came to recreation, Anne Arundel County's shopping malls used to be the home of senior citizens out for an air-conditioned walk and teenagers looking for a place to hang out away from their parents.
But the addition of sit-down restaurants, state-of-the-art movie theaters and family-friendly services have turned the local mall into a community gathering place -- a spot to bring a date on a Friday night or a young family on a Sunday afternoon.
From the glitzy Arundel Mills to the much smaller Centre at Glen Burnie, retail centers in the county are trying to cater to time-squeezed families.
"Shopping centers are striving to become more a part of the everyday life of the community," said Gene Condon, general manager of Arundel Mills and chairman of the board of directors of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau.
"Families need to be able to [do] more of their daily activities in a shorter time period," Condon said.
The largest shopping center in the area, Arundel Mills in Hanover, has been dubbed "shoppertainment" and recently was ranked as the third-best shopping attraction in the country by Zagat Survey's U.S. Family Travel Guide. The mega-mall has more than 200 stores, and its 24-screen Muvico movie theater has stadium seating and child care.
Several stores in Arundel Mills hold birthday parties and summer camps. Medieval Times offers dinner and a show. Jillian's has a dance club, bowling alley and video games. Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World houses a 30,000-gallon aquarium and gives fishing lessons. Additionally, staffers from North Arundel Hospital track the miles of mall walkers, and students can earn a degree at the on-site branch of Anne Arundel Community College.
"Clearly what Arundel Mills provides the county with is another tourism draw," Condon said. "The more people we can attract and bring into the county, the better opportunity businesses have."
The popular Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis -- formerly Annapolis Mall -- is also seeking to be family-friendly. It is home to 180 specialty stores and restaurants, an 11-screen theater and five department stores: Hecht's, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Sears and Lord & Taylor. Expansion plans for the mall call for the addition of 270,000 square feet.
About 18 million shoppers visit the mall each year, and management is working hard to expand those ranks through an aggressive new customer service campaign, said Scott deGreffenreid, marketing director of Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis.
Shopping concierges are available to greet shoppers as they enter the mall, escort them to stores, carry their bags and make dinner reservations. Free gift wrap and bottled water are offered -- as are replacements for spilled coffee.
"We're just trying to do the unexpected," deGreffenreid said. "It's simply designed to make the shopping experience more pleasant."
Shoppers are taking notice. Larry Forbes was at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis on July 4 so his 6-year-old son could enjoy the play area. He said the mall's atmosphere has kept him coming back.
"The play areas are a definite positive," Forbes said. "I think what they've done is make the shopping area more convenient and more interesting."
It also has a mall walkers program and offers members monthly breakfasts and prizes. There are family lounges, an indoor play area, children's book readings and a weekly "Movies for Moms" screening.
Other shopping centers in the area are trying to attract families as well.
Plans to update the Centre at Glen Burnie, formerly Glen Burnie Mall, have been under way since Petrie Ventures purchased it in 2002. A Target and 30,000 square feet of retail space will be added in October to the more than 30 stores there now. The mall also offers a mall walkers program, job fairs and community-oriented events such as blood drives.
Marley Station, a 1.1 million-square-foot mall in Glen Burnie with more than 150 stores and an eight-screen movie theater, has a family entertainment program on Friday afternoons, a play area and a mall walkers program. An expansion of the mall that will open in the fall includes a two-story, 30,000- square-foot Gold's Gym with a child care center, coffee shop and women-only workout room, said Charmaine Lawrence, Marley Station's general manager.
Lawrence said malls have been providing more than just sales for years, but the addition of services usually provided outside malls -- such as a gym -- is new.
"The shopping centers for years have been gathering places and destination centers for more than shopping," Lawrence said. "It's family entertainment."