All that the district representative for the Friendly's Ice Cream store in Rockville Mall wanted the new mall manager to do was arrange to have some signs advertising his restaurant, placed on the outside of the mall.
But what he got instead from Robert A. Gring, the pudgy, smiling and enthusiastic mall manager, was a long-winded discourse on how the fledgling shopping center eventually will be linked to Metro's Rockville station by a walkway when the subway opens in 1931, and how the new county office building and courthouse planned for nearby will send hundreds of ice cream-hungry customers to the mall's fast food' and ice cream store.
The Friendly's representative never did get his new signs, but he did get a good dose of the "positive approach" Gring has been using ever since he took over as manager of the troubled mall last October. It's all part of Gring's avowed mission to turn Rockville Mall into an economically stable and safe mall - and, yes - an enjoyable place to shop.
Withe the enthusiasm of a religous convert, Gring says he is determined to change the $14 million Rockville Mall's image from "the mall that bombed out" in to that of a thriving shopping center in the heart of Rockville's business district, offering what you cannot get at the other area malls.
"We're going to put Rockville Mall on the map," says Gring, 55, who once took a ride in a hot air balloon as a promotion gimmick for a Florida shopping center (a plaque commemorating the balloon ride hangs in his mall office).
Rockville Mall is widely considered the homely sister in Montgomery County's family of enclosed malls, which includes Montgomery Mall on Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda and White Flint on Rockville Pike.
It doesn't have the big department stores, like Garfinckel's, Sears, Raleigh's and Woodward & Lothrop, as does Montgomery Mall.It also lacks the flair of White Flint, with its roof-top restaurants space-age elevators, expensive European-style boutiques - and, of course, its Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's.
Gring, a man who is quick with a joke and a laugh and who asks store managers to pray for him, said that, as a result, to keep the mall's original same "would be like putting up a red flag in front on the public," reminding them of the mall's embarrasing past.
So, as one of his first acts as Rockville Mall's fifth manager in five years, he sponsored a contest to change mall's name. Five thousand entry blanks were handed out to customers at the mall's 32 stores last month and there were 942 returns, Gring said. By Feb. 16, a new name will have been selected from one of the entries and Rockville Mall will be officially renamed.
That's only one of the ideas Gring has to bring life back to Rockville Mall. The man whom one former boss called "a dreamer . . . a guy with impractical, inworkable ideas," also hopes to:
Place a carillon on the mall's roof that sounds chimes every hour and plays times at lunchtime ranging from "God Bless America" and "Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean," to "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Home on the Rasge."
Open an ethic-style food market, typical of Baltimore's Lexington Market, in the Mall's basement where, until last month when they became the latest mall renters to flee, the Montgomery County police maintained their headquarter;
Hold car and boat shows on the main concourse of the mall.
Pipe music into the mall's parking garage.
Gring revels in hs ideas: "Envision if you will a three-story fountain, hear the sound of splashing water," waxed Gring somewhat mystically at one point during a tour of the mall. "Maybe I'll throw in a bottle of vegetable coloring so the water could be colored," he added as the idea grew in his mind.
All these ideas and more have convinced the mall's operators that "Gring is the man" to revive the Mall, according to Anthoby Rolfe of Sulzberger-Rolfe, the New York-based firm that manages the mall.
"In order for me to be effective, I can't become White Flint Mall or Montgomery Mall," said Gring, who has a habit of talking as if he were the personification of Rockville Mall. "I must be what I am."
Rockville Mall opened in 1972 and was built with U.S. funds as part of a vast urban renewal project to upgrade downtown Rockville. It had difficulties almost from the start, according to Rolfe: it has yet to see a profitable year, he said, and only avoided heavy losses in 1977 because it was able to defer some servicing on its debts.
Thus far it has attracted several fast food restaurants, clothing and shoe stores, a health food store (which moved out because of poor business and then returned), a furniture store, music store, sporting good shop, dance supplies store, and movie theater.
The reminders of the mall's troubles are everywhere: space-available signs are tacked onto boarded-up storefront spaces (only 32 to 60 spaces for stores are currently occupied, its dark and dingy underground garage has been the scene of purse-snatchings and vandalism in the past; plant pots have dirt but no plants in them; and a tall, dying tree stands alongside the mall's escalators.
In a tiny chilly basement office, where a chart of the metropolitan area's shopping malls and an aerial photograph of the Rockville town center is pasted on a wall, Gring is at work arranging new programs, forming new plans.
When Gring came last October, he arranged for a flea market each Saturday on the mall's concourse where local artisans could sell their leather goods, wood products, copperware and brassware.
At Christmastime, he brought puppet shows, a magic show and choral groups to the mall. And last month he purchased 42 television spots, each 30 seconds long, in an effort to encourage area residents to do their Christmas shopping at "beautiful Rockville Mall."
Gring's latest project for the mall is the hosting of two dog shows, sponsored by the National Capital Area American Eskimo Dog Club and the Free State Dog Training Club and the that will take place Jan. 28 and 29.
He says he has pinned his hopes for financing his ideas on being able to rent all the currently available space in the mall.
Pat Ryan, who manages the mall's Friendly Ice Cream store, said Gring "has probably generated more interest in the mall than any of the previous managers since the mall opened . . . Before the flea market, you used to have only two or three people walking by." Since the Saturday flea market opened, Friendly's weekend business has increased dramatically, Ryan said.
According to one county government official who helped draft the plans for Rockville Mall and who asked not to be named, "It appears Mr. Gring is the only one who's had any ideas in a long time . . . whether or not it will change things I'm very doubtful."