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White Marsh Mall is true to itself for 30 years

Lisa K. Bisenius, General Manager of White Marsh Mall

Staying true to oneself is a concept that works with most things — including malls. And sticking to successful retailers has kept White Marsh Mall alive for the past 30 years.

The mall kicked off its 30th anniversary celebration Friday, and its plans for the future are no deviation from its original vision.

“White Marsh has done well because it serves exactly the target area around it,” said Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group, an Owings Mills-based retail recruiting firm.

The mall has been a bastion of retail for the White Marsh area since it opened on Aug. 12, 1981, capturing not only the northeastern section of Baltimore County, but luring Harford County residents as well. And gaining even more shoppers from Harford is expected to happen soon with the influx of new county residents because of Base Realignment and Closure, mall officials said.

“We’re still seeing a lot of dynamic growth,” said Lisa K. Bisenius, general manager of White Marsh Mall. “With more coming from Harford County and BRAC, we still need to really appeal to that market.”

That means leasing space to affordable retailers that appeal to the middle class, the teens and mothers who don’t shop at high-end luxury stores, Bisenius said.

The 1.2 million-square-foot complex has nearly 150 stores, with five anchor tenants. The Rouse Co. opened the mall in 1981 with Sears, Bamberger’s JCPenney, Woodward & Lothrop and Hutzler’s as its original anchors. But over the years, as department stores have come and gone, White Marsh has seen a change in anchor stores.

Bamberger’s became Macy’s in 1986. Hecht’s replaced Hutzler’s in 1992. Lord & Taylor took over from Woodward & Lothrop in 1998. Six years later, Lord & Taylor closed and became a Hecht’s Home Store (now Macy’s Home Store) and a Sports Authority.

Boscov’s took Macy’s spot in 2006, but closed two years later when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Taking the time to get the right anchors to fill vacant space is key, Bisenius said.

“Not having external reactions or knee jerking to closures, that has worked for us,” she said.

Among the store’s original tenants are JCPenney, Sears, Fire & Ice and Wockenfuss Candies.

Bonnie Linthicum, store manager for Fire & Ice, said the mall’s clientele has changed since White Marsh opened.

“It was a little more upper-class then, now we’ve got more middle-class and lower-class mix, we’ve got a little bit of everything,” Linthicum said.

Even when The Avenue at White Marsh, which is owned by Federal Realty Investment Trust, opened just across the street from the mall in 1998, tenants and mall management didn’t flinch.

The difference between the two types of shopping centers — one a traditional, enclosed indoor mall, the other an open-air center — made for healthy competition, Bisenius said.

While many industry members said the open-air, lifestyle center model would overtake traditional malls, Millman said that shoppers still prefer going to malls because they’re more of the one-stop-shop idea. Shoppers also don’t want to walk around outside when the weather is inclement or extreme, he said.

Liz Diaz opened her women’s clothing store, Native Boutique, at White Marsh Mall three months ago, and decided against opening at an open-air location. Diaz had a store in an open-air shopping center in Puerto Rico before coming to the U.S. five years ago. But she said having a store in a regular mall allowed for more foot traffic during the day.

“If you go to the Avenue, the theaters, they have people around at night when the movies are playing, but during the day, there’s no one there,” Diaz said. Morning walkers and children flock to the mall more often, she said, which means more for sales.

Mikayla Hydes, 19, and her cousin, Teoshawna Murray, 17, said they preferred coming to White Marsh Mall because more of their preferred retailers were in one spot.

Activities for the 30th anniversary celebration included performances from community groups, including a bagpipe corps, viewing of 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in the former Boscov’s parking lot, children’s activities, an ’80s fashion show and a Chick-fil-A nugget eating contest.

Sales at the mall have picked up from corresponding periods last year, Bisenius said. While she declined to give numbers, she said sales were up in the single digits, particularly in juniors’ apparel, jewelry, restaurants and the food court.

But sweeping changes won’t be coming to the mall anytime soon, as they did in 2004, when new flooring, planters and seating were installed. The mall will get some updates in the near future, Bisenius said, as well as putting in more juniors’ apparel and jewelry retailers.