Mega-retailer Wal-Mart Corp. plans to open a store in Dobbin Center, a move that could bring more customers and new retailers to the aging Columbia strip mall at Route 175 and Dobbin Road, merchants and real estate industry officials say.

The chain, based in Bentonville, Ark., plans to begin renovating the vacant Kmart site this spring or summer and open a 104,000-square-foot store late this year or in early 2004, said Keith T. Morris, Wal-Mart community affairs manager for the Northeast.

Wal-Mart chose Dobbin Center for its first Columbia store after considering other buildings and parcels. The average Wal-Mart store is 95,000 square feet, Morris said.

"The location and the size of this particular building was very attractive to us," he said. "Fortunately for us, everything worked out."

The store will employ about 200 people and could cost $2.5 million to $3 million to renovate, Morris said. The site previously housed a 110,000-square-foot Kmart, which closed last year.

Wal-Mart has 32 stores in Maryland, including Ellicott City, Glen Burnie and Catonsville, and 2,400 stores in the United States. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart plans to open 185 stores during its fiscal year, which began Feb. 1.

Wal-Mart decided to renovate the Kmart site rather than open a store there immediately, Morris said. The chain will open directly across from the newer Columbia Crossing shopping center, where one of its largest competitors, Target, is located. That fits into Wal-Mart's growth strategy, he said.

"The majority of stores that we operate have at least one or two major competitors" nearby, Morris said. "Typically, they're right across the street or within a quarter of a mile. Retail wants to be located where customer traffic is flowing."

Wal-Mart's reputation as a haven for bargain shoppers makes it a formidable competitor for all comparable stores in the vicinity, said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group in Montclair, N.J., which publishes Barnard's Retail Trend Report, an industry newsletter.

"Wal-Mart is the draw of the millennium," Barnard said. "Wal-Mart's arrival is always a challenge to all the others who try to compete with Wal-Mart. It's competition of the first order for Target, as well as others."

Kevin Allen, property manager for Kimco Realty Corp., which owns and manages most of Dobbin, said Wal-Mart could bring new business to Dobbin Center, where several smaller merchants have continued to operate since Kmart closed. Kmart opened at the Dobbin Center in 1989.

"Having the No. 1 retailer in the world anchor our center will drive traffic to Dobbin and improve smaller tenant sales," Allen said. "In addition, prospective retailers looking for space in Columbia will be drawn to the center. I'm excited about Dobbin's future."

Other store openings are planned in the next several months in Dobbin. Dobbin's other anchor, Uptons, closed in 1999, and work recently began inside the 65,200-square-foot building to house Offenbacher Aquatics, a pool and patio furniture store that plans to open April 1.

The building's owner, New York-based Lexington Corporate Properties Trust, a real estate management company, said in December that it signed a 10-year lease with Offenbacher for 17,100 square feet. George P. Wilson, a Lexington vice president, said this week that the company is looking for one or two more tenants for the Upton space.

Dobbin merchants welcomed the news of the planned store openings. Dobbin, Columbia's first modern strip mall, was once one of Howard County's premier shopping destinations, but several stores have closed in the last few years. BGE Home, which shut down last year as part of an eight-store closing in Maryland, remains vacant. Allen said Kimco is negotiating with another retailer to take over that space.

In 1997, Columbia Crossing, a shopping center stocked with big-box names such as Target, Dick's Sporting Goods and Borders Books and Music and a lane of restaurants, opened across Route 175 off Dobbin Road. In 2001, the nearby Shoppes at Dobbin Way opened with tenants including Starbucks, Jennifer Convertibles and a Fuddruckers restaurant.

Dobbin's profile could soon rise with the entry of Wal-Mart and other retailers, said Gary L. Rosenbaum, president of Party! Party! Party!, a Dobbin Center store that sells greeting cards, party decorations and bridal goods. The store opened in Dobbin in 1983 with 1,600 square feet and has since expanded to 13,000 square feet.

Wal-Mart "will definitely bring traffic into the center," Rosenbaum said. "I think they'll give Target a run for their money in the Columbia marketplace. I think Wal-Mart will put Dobbin Center on the map."