Harford Mall, the county's first and only enclosed shopping center, has acquired a new earth-toned facade and stone pillars and is preparing to debut its lifestyle center, welcome new tenants and show off its interior amenities.
The movies have relocated to make space for more stores, but patrons can still find pizza in the 500,000- square-foot mall that has undergone an 18-month renovation, its largest since its 1972 opening.
Bernie Spicer remembers when a vacant racetrack, long unused and overgrown with weeds, occupied the intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 24 near downtown Bel Air where the mall is located.
She remembers the excitement when construction crews cleared the site and broke ground on the 47-acre property in the early 1970s. She remembers pizza and movie nights at the mall and shopping for her first prom dress there.
"I moved to Bel Air as a child, and I have seen a lot of change in the last 40 years," said Spicer, the mall's marketing director. "The mall has changed a lot, too, and it's changing again."
And it has all happened in time for the mall's 35th anniversary, a celebration Spicer is organizing.
"From a marketing standpoint, you can't beat the timing," she said.
To survive and compete with the big-box stores, neighborhood strip shopping centers and the Internet, the 1970s-era shopping hubs have had to expand and adapt, said Malachy Kavanaugh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Like most malls, Harford's one-story version quickly became the dominant retail format as the community grew up around it. It has undergone a few renovations but none as expansive as the present one.
"Renovations allow malls to change the mix, to expand and bring in new tenants," Kavanaugh said. "Retail has changed greatly, and malls have to adapt to bring in more customers. There is a great deal of thought going into aesthetics to increase traffic and distinguish the mall from its competition."
Harford Mall's familiar flashing sign along U.S. 1 is gone, but the mall's longtime logo - an encircled swan and catkins - remains. Inside, five high-tech Smart Shopper screens direct patrons to the bargains offered by nearly 80 retailers within the mall and its annex across Boulton Street.
The few vacancies will be filled by year's end, Spicer said.
The most recent three-month traffic data show an average of nearly 500,000 people, including patrons and employees, visit the mall each month, Spicer said.
"We have the best of locations, with easy access to I-95," Spicer said. "We draw shoppers from the county, northern Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania."
Privately owned for most of its history, the mall and its annex were purchased for $71 million three years ago by CBL & Associates Properties Inc. Based in Chattanooga, Tenn., CBL owns 79 shopping malls across the country, including York Galleria in Pennsylvania. Harford Mall is the firm's fourth-largest enterprise and its only Maryland site.
Location, demographics and economics drew the company to the Bel Air site, said Deborah Gibbs, CBL spokeswoman.
"The location between Baltimore and Philadelphia, the growing higher-income community on the I-95 corridor and its position as an economic hub in Harford County all attracted us," Gibbs said. "Our company owns and manages market-dominating properties, and that is exactly what Harford Mall is."
CBL began planning the renovations soon after settling on the property, but would not reveal the cost. The company is committed to enhancing and improving all its properties, Gibbs said.
Designers created themes for each wing of the mall, which is anchored by Sears and Macy's. The building received new flooring, several seating areas and space for seasonal kiosk retailers, as well as decorative ironwork, according to the company.
The renovations resulted in minimal loss of parking spaces. There are still 2,543, including those at the annex and four rows of parking in front of the lifestyle center, a restaurant grouping that faces Route 1.
Bonefish Grill, the first of several new businesses, opened its 264-seat restaurant last week with about 50 employees. Early next month, Five Guys Burgers and Qdoba Mexican Grill will join Bonefish in the area that has replaced the mall's food court, according to the company.
"It's designed as a plaza for a fast in and out," Spicer said. "Patrons can pull up, dine and go home or use the mall's new entry and stay to shop."
Spicer said she is not sure how far the signal on the beepers from Bonefish Grill will reach, but she plans to be one of the first to test it.
Otti Montgomery of Aberdeen was recently shopping at the mall with her daughter and grandchildren.
"I have shopped here since it opened and it keeps getting bigger with more variety," she said. "It looks really attractive."