SALISBURY, MD. -- No Gap. No Limited. No Victoria's Secret. It might be difficult to imagine for Washingtonians saturated with cookie-cutter malls, but that was the way it was here in this small city on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
That is, until yesterday, when the Centre at Salisbury had its grand opening. Multicolored balloons and kites festooned the $80 million mall and its more than 1 million square feet of retail space, as thousands of curious shoppers jammed Route 13, filled the huge parking lot and clogged the marbled promenades lined with jazzy-looking new stores.
The oohs-and-ahhs of the crowds were not surprising, considering that the Centre at Salisbury is the first new mall in the area in more than 20 years.
Only a few hours away, consumers in the Washington area have their fill of fashion and food courts. But people on the Delmarva Peninsula have seen little of the change that has exploded across the retail scene in the past few years. That meant many headed to the upscale malls of Washington, Annapolis, Baltimore and Dover, Del.
"This is just wonderful, really nice," said Claramae Hayman of Pocomoke, a half-hour drive away, as she perused the skylit courtyard near Hecht's. "I used to have to drive to Tysons Corner to get these kind of stores -- it's a long time coming."
Not long enough, it seems, for the old Salisbury Mall, three miles away from the Centre. Built in 1968 and last renovated in 1974, the mall, with its low ceilings and unremarkable architecture, harks back to another era in retailing. Its merchants view the new center with trepidation -- and anger, after the Centre stole away two of the old mall's anchors, Sears and Hecht's, and thus introduced another new retailing concept to the area: the mall war.
The hullabaloo of yesterday's grand opening, featuring Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Miss Maryland, Virginia Cha, was welcome to those who had wondered whether a largely rural and agricultural region could attract such a large-scale development.
"There was always that uncertainty of building out here, since many were not sure the area had the people to support the mall," said Salisbury Mayor Paul Martin. "I always told them the market is here, because there would be none like it on the Eastern Shore."
Mall officials hope to draw from a region of about 270,000 people from Dover south to Cape Charles, Va., though Salisbury's population totals only about 20,000. They also hope to capitalize on tourist-laden Ocean City, which is 30 minutes away.
Annual sales are projected at $425 million and the mall, owned by McLean-based Petrie, Dierman and Partners and Shopco Management Corp., is expected to create 2,000 new jobs here in Wicomico County. There will be three other anchor stores besides Hecht's and Sears: Boscov's, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward.
"All these stores will return Salisbury to the role of being the regional trade center, since it had been losing its dominance over the past few years as the magnet of retailing has lost its power to draw," said Robert Kiley of Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Inc., a private, nonprofit research group. "We have been building an economic base to support it, and retail comes where retail wants to go."
That prospect had some people worried about the effect on the Salisbury Mall, which replaced downtown Salisbury as the city's retailing center two decades ago.
"It has been a concern," said Robert Cook of the Greater Salisbury Committee, a private business group. "But many think it's time for things here to improve, and the older Salisbury Mall will only be hurt to the extent that it does not compete and catch up to the levels that the new mall brings to the area."
It plans to. Equitable Real Estate, a division of Equitable Life Assurance, which owns the Salisbury Mall, is set to spend millions on renovation in the next few months.
Peebles and Warehouse Food Store remain as anchors there, and marketing director Mary-Tim Ramsey said the Salisbury Mall is negotiating for new anchor tenants. Many speculate that Wal-Mart could be one of them.
"Business there will suffer for a short time," said John Hess, who has two Hess Apparel stores in the Salisbury Mall, one downtown and one in the new Centre. Hess, whose family has sold clothes in Salisbury since 1928, said he will wait and see how the old mall fares before he considers leaving it.
"It's just like chess," said Vickee Armstrong, marketing director at the Centre at Salisbury. "There is room for both malls and we are not taking shoppers from their mall, but keeping shoppers here in the area. We all can benefit."
Despite the attention given to the Centre, Ramsey is hopeful. "We are not going to fold, we are not going out of business," she said. "The new mall is just forcing us to reestablish where we belong in the community and make us stronger."
Shoppers, long denied stores they believe they deserve, are thrilled at the prospect.
"I am ready to spend in my own community," said Claramae Hayman, clutching a full shopping bag. "Tell that to Macy's and Nordstrom and the rest of them up north."