A lavish groundbreaking ceremony yesterday for an Anne Arundel County megamall attracted a gaggle of county officials and civic association leaders, who praised the project as an economic boon, and a gantlet of protesters, who denounced it as a recipe for traffic and pollution.

The crowd of 200 people that gathered inside an air-conditioned tent at the construction site on the Baltimore Washington Parkway heard developer Laurence C. Siegel boast that Arundel Mills mall will rival in popularity Potomac Mills, the mall his company built in Woodbridge and the biggest tourist attraction in Virginia.

He called both malls "shoppertainment."

"We see the two projects as bookends of the Washington area," said Siegel, the chief executive officer of the Mills Corp. of Arlington.

With 200 stores and attractions occupying 1.4 million square feet, Arundel Mills would be one of the five largest malls in the area, after Tysons Corner, Potomac Mills and Springfield, and about the same size as Landover. It is scheduled to open before Thanksgiving 2000.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), who expressed doubts about the project during her election campaign last year, said she now fully supports it. But she sympathized with the 25 protesters outside yesterday's ceremony, who stood with placards saying "Just Say No" on one line and "50,000 Cars a Day" on the next.

"I predict gridlock on opening day," Owens said. "We are going to have to work on public transportation to get people in and out of here."

Harry Matthews, the former president of a nearby civic association, said he supports the project because "now we won't have to run to Marley Station or to Annapolis or Columbia to go to a mall."

Bob Burdon, president and chief executive of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, said he did not think Arundel Mills would drain shoppers from local malls.

"We haven't had any complaints from our members at Marley Station or Annapolis," he said.

But at Marley Station in Glen Burnie, seven miles east of the Arundel Mills site, one store manager said the megamall "is going to hurt, no question." The manager, who asked not to be identified, pointed out four vacant storefronts in one part of the mall, two of which she said had been empty for two years.

"When Arundel Mills is open, who's going to move in here?" she said.

One mall developer said Mills Corp. malls typically have a greater impact on strip outlet malls than on enclosed malls. "It's the outlet malls that were built far from population centers that lose out the most," said Michael Glimcher, an Ohio developer who follows mall trends.

"The Mills-type project will draw people from up to 100 miles away, and if those shoppers can get entertainment as well as outlet stores in a climate-controlled environment, they'll stop going to the old strip outlet malls," Glimcher said.

If the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment approve the Mills Corp.'s request for permission to fill in 1.4 acres of wetlands on the 393-acre site, construction will begin this summer. The groundbreaking yesterday occurred in a non-wetland part of the site.

"We're very confident that we're going to get approval," said Mills Corp. Vice President Edward Vinson.

Arundel Mills

Ground was broken yesterday in Anne Arundel County for a $250 million shopping mall, akin to Potomac Mills, near the Baltimore Washington Parkway and Route 100. The mall, along with other planned developments, is expected to bring millions of dollars in business to the area.