Even during the day, the interior of New Carrollton Mall is dark, and its vacant stores give it the look of an empty cavern. At night, gift store manager Anush Santhanam doesn't like walking to his car alone. The loitering gangs and blatant drug deals in the mall parking lot scare him, so he and the remaining handful of other store owners close at the same time and walk to the mall parking lot en masse.

But all of this may soon be transformed.

Starting early next year, most of the mall will be demolished to make way for a new, 160,000-square-foot Lowe's Home Improvement Center and an expanded Shoppers Food Warehouse. Local officials hope the conversion of the dilapidated mall will spawn revitalization of the surrounding area. Both stores will open in about two years and will bring with them about 275 jobs of mostly local hires. The total cost of renovation, construction and inventory for the new shopping center and its parking lot will be about $45 million, said William C. Harrison, director of leasing and development for Carrollton Enterprises Management Co. LLC. The company built the original mall, which opened in 1973.

For County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), this is a matter of more than just renovation and new jobs. It's about improving image and bringing better retail into the county and the optimism he believes will ride on the coattails of the mall's renovation. The new anchors are about "more than just their individual dollar impact," because investment begets more investment, he said. Curry has been trying to lure retailers into inner-Beltway areas in Prince George's County for years, and "those people are easier to persuade if there are tangible examples of investment," he said.

Curry cited Eastover Shopping Center as an example of inner-Beltway retail revival. Eastover recently renovated and constructed a 60,000-square-foot Giant Food Inc. Eastover's new tenants and New Carrollton's new Lowe's and the expanded Shoppers Food Warehouse are in county-designated revitalization zones, which means they receive an 80 percent reduction in real estate taxes, phased out during four years.

The small retailers in the mall--during the mall's heyday there were 28, including a six-screen theater--recognize the benefit of bringing in big-box stores but say they are scrambling to find new places to set up shop. Many of the mom-and-pop stores already vacated after receiving a notice several weeks ago from the management company to move by mid-August.

As many as three-quarters of the stores already are completely vacated, and of those remaining, many don't open until the early afternoon, or are open only on the weekends. Owners and managers at the few remaining stores say the mall's demolition is a sad epilogue to a grim drama.

"I'm surprised they kept us here this long," International Bazaar manager Santhanam said. His business has been losing money over the last three to four years, he said. His store may relocate to the Landover area, he said, but that means no more small retailers for New Carrollton. "The attitude of Carrollton Enterprises is that they want a big store--it was always that way," Santhanam said. But he also said that a large store like Lowe's would help improve security at the mall.

For Carrollton Enterprises, the search for a new anchor for New Carrollton Mall began four years ago, after catalogue showroom Best Products Co. declared bankruptcy.

Even Albert Turner, managing partner and founder of Carrollton Enterprises, last week called the mall "an eyesore that we've been seeing for the last few years." He was speaking at the news conference at which Lowe's and Shoppers Food Warehouse signed 20-year leases with Carrollton Enterprises.

Harrison said the Beltsville-based management company presided over "a sinking ship."

"Vacancies in the mall tended to invite congregations of drug dealers" until a police station was established in the mall parking lot, he said. But with the new Lowe's and expanded Shoppers, "a large majority of the crime will not take place because it is not conducive to drug trafficking," with the increased customer traffic, better lighting and increased security provided by the management company and its tenants, he said.

CAPTION: Gift shops at the New Carrollton Mall have been closing because most of the shopping center will be demolished as part of its make-over.