Sarah Rosario and other longtime Annapolis residents say they remember the demise of the old Parole Shopping Center pretty much as a slow fade, with retailers large and small slip-sliding away for years.
The Kmart packed up and moved to Edgewater, Sears jumped down the road to the Westfield Annapolis mall, and Woodward and Lothrop was gobbled up by competitors. Somebody must have turned out that old white sign as the 32-acre site went under the bulldozer.
Lately, Rosario and 380 colleagues - all decked out in identical red shirts and khaki slacks - are manning the cornerstone Target store for the $500 million Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole. Back in the day, she could never have imagined the huge three-story retail anchor, nor the pricey luxury apartments and condominiums towering above it all.
"I've lived in the county for 20 years, and I remember all the old stores," said Rosario, 34. "I've worked for 14 years in retail, and I never thought about something like this. It's exciting for Annapolis."
Jay Pittman, 33, has lived in the county for most of his life. He's tried lots of jobs, everything from cell phones to tending bar and waiting tables. Now, after an intensive three-part interview, Pittman has been hired to lead a 12-person staff at the Starbucks franchise inside Target.
"There's some real opportunity with Target," Pittman said. "You qualify for full benefits in 90 days, including tuition reimbursement, and the atmosphere is very welcoming. For them, it's all about hiring people with the right outlook, the right attitude,"
Opening today along with a handful of smaller retailers - the first of three dozen upscale shops opening this fall and early next year - Target is the key for the 2-million-square-foot, mixed-use development. The upscale mix is scheduled to include Anthropologie, Coldwater Creek, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, The Chop House, Bed, Bath and Beyond, JJill and Whole Foods, among others.
"It's the retail that's the jazz; it's the retail that's already generating the buzz about the project," said developer Brian J. Gibbons, president of the Owings Mills company, Greenberg Gibbons Commercial.
The first phase of the development includes 200 luxury apartments and 150 condominiums, providing the residential element in a concept that Gibbons says is aimed mostly at empty-nesters and young professionals.
Ten stories of apartments in one building will rent for about $2,000 a month, and 12 stories of condominiums (about half are sold) in the other high-rise start at about $400,000. Both complexes will have two levels of retail space at street level, Gibbons said.
"The idea is that we're selling a lifestyle," Gibbons said. "You don't have to get in a car to go to the grocery store or the bank or to shop. Pretty much everything you'd need is here."
With Target as the anchor store, the Towne Centre continues to attract interested retailers. Most, Gibbons said, are looking for the same customers.
Among the first to open its doors is Great Gatherings, a store that specializes in home entertainment items, including pool tables manufactured by its parent company, Ohio-based American Heritage Billiards.
"In this economy, it says something about our confidence that we're opening a store - our second store anywhere - here in Annapolis," said J.D. Burns, store director. "With the economy unsettled, people are nesting in their own homes. This area has the right demographics. This is where we want to be."
After working four years on the project, Gibbons acknowledges that the project's timing coincides with near chaos in national and international financial markets. On the bright side, his project already has financing.
"Nothing's guaranteed, but we were lucky to some extent with the timing," Gibbons said. "There are very few projects like this in the state. We get approached all the time by local governments looking for something similar. But it takes the perfect blend of demographics, traffic patterns, everything."
With the promise of producing about 3,000 jobs, $243 million in sales and eye-popping fees and tax revenue, it's easy to see why the Towne Centre project is coveted by other localities.
Gibbons sees it as a catalyst for continued redevelopment along the West Street corridor. County Executive John R. Leopold says he hopes it will be a model for redevelopment near BWI Marshall Airport.
In addition to Towne Centre, county officials point to a recent expansion of nearby Westfield Annapolis mall and an estimated 22,000 defense-related jobs expected in the near future at Fort Meade as evidence of Anne Arundel's continued economic viability.
"It's a major booster for our economy, even in these dire times," Leopold said. "It's visionary, a creative example of how to grow vertically."