Macy's announcement last week that it is coming to downtown Wheaton has sparked excitement and anticipation among residents, business owners and county officials who hope that the department store will attract more visitors into an area that needs an economic boost.
Federated Department Stores Inc., the owner of Macy's, said it will build a 180,000-square-foot store at Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton mall at Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue. Construction will start next year, and the store, which will replace a parking lot, will open in 2005.
"The county has been talking to Macy's for 20 years about coming here," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who personally helped broker the deal with the company. "They signed a letter of intent for Silver Spring. That was 15 years ago, and nothing ever materialized.
"I've always felt they belong here," he said. "They're a great store, and they've got a great market in Montgomery County. Wheaton [mall] is going to be the equivalent of Montgomery Mall. When you have a Macy's coming in, it's a real statement of Wheaton."
The coming of Macy's is the cornerstone for a major renovation of Westfield. It also means the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton has gotten a positive signal to move forward. The county and private developers plan to invest about $275 million over three to four years to revitalize the area.
Westfield executives said they plan to turn an underground storage area into an estimated 100,000 square feet of retail, making it a two-story center. They will also add skylights, handrails and upgraded fixtures inside the mall.
The mall at Wheaton had become stale in the last few years, retail experts and shoppers said. Westfield replaced a Montgomery Ward store with a Target in July. There is also a Hecht's and a JCPenney.
With Macy's, the mall is expected to attract high-end and discount shoppers to its mix of stores.
"Macy's is the catalyst for our overall revitalization of Westfield's," said Tim Lowe, executive vice president of development for Westfield America Inc., the mall's owner. "We needed something to really go in and change [the mall] around. We needed something new and exciting. Macy's does that for us."
Westfield had talked about renovating the mall, which it acquired in 1997, but was waiting for Macy's to make a decision. County and mall officials had been negotiating with the store for the last three years. But the latest economic downturn made Macy's reluctant to decide whether to open a new store in the area.
The county will invest $6 million to help pay for a 900-space public parking garage near Macy's. Because Wheaton is an "enterprise zone," the new store also qualifies for a $2.6 million property tax credit over 10 years.
The mall attracts about 5.5 million visitors a year and expects that number to increase to 9.8 million annually once Macy's opens and mall renovations are complete.
The mall is surrounded by a commercial area that is a collection of eclectic storefronts, seeling items ranging from magic tricks and baseball cards to toys and rare books and ethnic food.
As the area has aged, storefronts have become run-down with leaky roofs, stained carpets and peeling paint, shoppers and nearby residents said. The shops are in a jumble of separate shopping centers. Officials hope a new Macy's will have the ripple effect on smaller retailers and service-related businesses that need to spruce up.
"I'm really very excited Macy's is coming because it's going to bring some upscale customers here and be a real draw to the area," said Filippo Leo, owner of Marchones Italian Deli.
Since the terrorist attacks in 2001 and the slowed economy, some retailers in Wheaton have continued to struggle. At the Anchor Inn, at Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard, sales were down about 15 percent last year compared with the year before.
"We're still trying to get our customer base back after 9/11, and then the sniper cost us business," owner Selby Scaggs said. "It's things like [Macy's coming to the mall] that are going to pump up the area. It's a positive all the way around."
Developers and planners said they expect more office and retail construction to come to downtown Wheaton now that Macy's will be there. Already, two residential projects are underway that will create more than 500 townhouses and apartments.
"Things are just beginning to move" toward redevelopment," said Patti Murphy, owner of Wheaton Office Supply. "The developers are starting to look at Wheaton. Up until the last few years, they didn't look at us. Now they're looking at us as a viable place to build."