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Laurel Mall Retailers Brace For Big Changes

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The soon-to-be-demolished Laurel Mall opened to great fanfare in 1979.
Rebecca Sheir
The soon-to-be-demolished Laurel Mall opened to great fanfare in 1979.

At the near-empty building known as Laurel Mall, a smattering of retailers is struggling to unload the stock on their shelves. One of those retailers is Audrey Durr-Poole, owner of Gallery Imports, a shop featuring African crafts.

"In the month of November I made three sales," she says. "Not one sale on Black Friday. Not one."

Durr-Poole says the winter holidays are typically a gangbusters time for Gallery Imports. She usually makes enough to tie her over rent-wise for several months. That hasn't happened for a while now--for Durr-Poole or any of the Mall's other dozen or so tenants.

Out with the old, in with the town center

Laurel Mall was actually a pretty big deal back in 1979, when it made its splashy debut on the Route 1 scene. But since then, management has switched from hand to hand to hand, more big-box retailers have cropped up nearby, and anchor stores have come and gone. In fact, Macy's just announced this week it's closing its doors in the spring.

So these days, the current Mall is a shadow of its former self. But eventually it will be merely a memory, as this year developers knock down the building and replace it with a 400,000-square-foot town center. Greenberg Gibbons is heading up the project; the company also helped build the new town centers in Annapolis and Hunt Valley.

While Greenberg Gibbons would not offer comment for this story, the company says in a press release that Laurel's new town center will feature shopping, dining and entertainment venues, along with residential units, and Laurel Mayor Craig Moe couldn't be more excited.

"You're going to see a town center there that everyone in the region's going be very proud of," he says.

You're also going to see a town center that reflects a growing trend across the country, says Anita Kramer, vice president of the Center for Capital Markets and Real Estate at the Urban Land Institute. She says traditional, indoor malls surged in popularity in the 1950s.

"There was a notion of people having moved out from the cities into the suburb, and to create a new town center for people to gather and shop - in the same conceptual way as they used to do in the old downtowns," Kramer says. "So it's interesting that we're just now using that term again, for the new town centers!"

Kramer says the town center is a smart strategy for development and redevelopment. Because a town center isn't one covered building, it's more flexible over time, and its mixed-use concept makes it a more fun place to hang out.

"It's gathering place," she says. "It's an amenity. It's part of the whole leisure field, the experience of coming there."

Surviving the changes

The U.S. has seen just one new indoor mall built since 2009, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. But Kramer wants to make one thing clear: traditional malls are not dying.

"That's really a misconception," she says. "I think just by their large size when people see it, it has such a major impact visually, and on the community because they lose the center of shopping, that people tend to think of it as this vast trend, whereas it's a segment of them."

Still, there's no question the Laurel Mall's days are numbered, and with that reality at hand, Audrey Durr-Poole is trying to figure out her next step. She says if she wants to survive, she'll have to move to a new location.

"And it's not a matter of being able to find a place; there are plenty of places around here for rent," she says. "It's, can we afford them? I just know that I don't have any money, anymore. I gotta find a place."

And when she does, she hopes those customers who once flocked to her store during the holidays--and all year round--will come with her.


[Music: "Theme From A Summer Place" by Percy Faith & His Orchestra from Essential - Easy Listening]

Photos: Laurel Park

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