When retiree Roger E. Wheeler and his wife Dorothy decided to open a card and gift store, they studied various locations and last year selected the renovated Shirlington shopping center in Arlington.

"It's a high income area with mostly younger people. They're into gifts, parties," Roger Wheeler said of the surrounding neighborhood, which is either high-rise apartments or low-rise condominiums.

In addition, the once shabby center was receiving a $35 million facelift from the Oliver T. Carr Co. as the first phase of a five-year, $250 million development that includes four office buildings, 490 residential units and a 300-room hotel.

The shopping complex, now dubbed the Village at Shirlington, will mark its official reopening at noon today in ceremonies featuring entertainment and speeches from Carr Co. and county officials.

Nonetheless, Shirlington's new start has been rocky.

County officials hope the rehabilitation will help the center, which is more than 40 years old and was one of the nation's first suburban shopping centers. A generation ago, the complex, just off Shirley Highway near South Four Mile Run Drive, was trendy and popular. But newer malls in areas such as Landmark in Alexandria and Tysons Corner drained off business and the Shirlington center fell into disrepair.

The new grand opening was supposed to have been last September but was postponed until today because much of the space was not rented. "We just moved a little slower" in leasing than anticipated, said Karen L. Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Carr Co.

Friedman said the firm was seeking neighborhood-oriented businesses for the center. "It was a matter of the right tenants. Our intent is to not have a mall feeling but a more personal {feeling}."

About half of the center's 40 stores are open, said Friedman, and about 65 percent of the stores have been leased. A five-story office building that was part of the development's first phase is completely leased, she said.

Card store owner Wheeler is hopeful that occupancy at the center will pick up. Since his store, Michelle's Hallmark, opened last Thanksgiving, it has been rough going.

Business has only been three-fourths of what was projected, said Wheeler. In addition, he and his wife have spent heavily on direct mail advertising and promotional discounts to lure that business, adding unexpected costs, he said.

"We're dependent a lot on foot traffic," he said. With the complex only half full there haven't many passers-by, he said. "We're really disappointed, we had been led to believe there would be quite a few more stores open by this time," he said.

In contrast to Wheeler's experience, business has been steady and good for the Mill End Shops, a drapery store and one of the few businesses from the original complex.

The store moved to the renovated plaza last September. Before that it had been down the street in a building that has been torn down to make way for a seven-screen cinema that is part of the overall development.

Manager Linda P. Stephens said the store had not had a rough time because "this is an older business, we weren't starting out."

Nearby residents generally welcome the reopened complex but said they fear it will eventually generate too much traffic.

"Congestion will develop. People will look for ways to get around it. One of those ways will be going through our neighborhood," said Edward R. Hilz, a resident of the nearby 4,300-unit Fairlington condominiums.