Thelma Taylor heaved a sigh of relief when the doors of the new Roses Discount Store opened at the Forestville Plaza Shopping Center last month. She was among the dozens of neighborhood residents greeted by cheery workers on opening day.
Over the past decade, Taylor, 81, had watched the once-vibrant shopping center turn into a place where trash was dumped, vagrants camped out in the empty storefronts and weeds overtook the parking lot.
In the past year, the Forestville shopping center has undergone a makeover — the parking lot was resurfaced, the plaza’s sign refurbished and the light fixtures repaired. Prince George’s County police helped evict the vagrants.
And in a collaborative effort between the mall’s owner and county officials, Roses signed on as the shopping center’s anchor, occupying 78,000 square feet that once housed an Ames department store before it closed more than a decade ago. Roses is the largest tenant of the 18-acre shopping center and adds 83 jobs to the workforce in the county.
North Carolina-based Roses is a regional discount store owned by Variety Wholesalers, which has about 400 stores across the country. The Prince George’s store, which opened Nov. 21, is the chain’s first in the Washington region and will be the company’s largest store in the country, according to its chief executive.
“It has been empty for way too long,” said Taylor, a longtime Forestville area resident. “We needed this. We needed these jobs.”
Prince George’s officials said the plaza makeover is part of an aggressive strategy to revitalize deteriorating shopping centers inside the Capital Beltway. About a dozen strip malls are in need of marketing, rebranding or rebuilding, officials said.
“Some of these shopping centers have struggled over the years,” said David Iannucci, a top economic development official in the county. And residents, he said, are tired of seeing them being neglected.
Larry Hentz, a business development specialist with the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp., said one of the challenges facing strip malls across the county has been that grocery chains such as Safeway and Giant Food have left empty spaces as they’ve moved on to pursue larger stores.
Over the past three years, Prince George’s officials have been working with mall owners to reverse the trend, Hentz said, by wooing smaller, independent grocers and retailers such as Roses to fill those spaces. Some cases are more challenging than others.
At Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, the county worked to bring in a grocery store but the independent grocer who ended up leasing the space closed after less than a year. Now the county is again working with the owner to bring in a new tenant, Hentz said.
Officials said they also are working with owners of other struggling strip malls that have high vacancy rates to determine whether there is a need for more diversity in retailers or to simply improve the appearance.
The county recently approved a subsidy package — including a $1.1 million tax deal and a $2 million conditional loan — for the construction of a Safeway store at University Town Center. In that case, the county aims to boost activity at the entertainment, office and housing community that has struggled with vacancies and foreclosures since the recession. Officials said the Safeway will be the anchor that the Hyattsville shopping center needs to thrive.
Built in the early 1970s, Forestville Plaza Shopping Center was a popular destination into the 1990s, before it started losing its anchor tenants.
Businesses have come and gone. There was a furniture store, a bank, a youth dance hall, a nightclub and some churches. Then it just sat there, empty.
“For years this location was just a drab mall,” said state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), who praised the opening of Roses as the start of new opportunities for the Forestville community. “This changes the face of the community. It opens up the community.”
Some residents say they are just happy to see something opening there and signs of improvement in the parcel, just off Pennsylvania Avenue inside the Beltway.
“It has been so long I can’t even remember what was there before, but it was busy,” said Nathaniel Pennywell, 74, a Suitland retiree.
Olga Ortez, 46, a stay-at-home mom who lives two miles from the shopping center, went to the Roses opening to check out the sales and see what the buzz was about. She said she hoped Roses would last longer than previous tenants.
“If they have discounts, people will sure come shop here,” she said.
Developer Mike Amann Sr., who bought the shopping center in August 2012 for $4.6 million, said he spent an additional $4 million on improvements, including $65,000 to clean up trash outside the building.
Amann, an Alexandria-based developer who has several properties in Prince George’s, said that when he purchased the parcel, he didn’t know what he would do with it but that he thought it was worth investing in given the prospects for rapid growth in central Prince George’s.
The site is just outside the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor and only a few miles from Westphalia Town Center, a mega-development project in the planning stages that will include residential, commercial and office space.
But at Forestville Plaza, the change came with several hurdles. First Amann worked with the county to lift development restrictions that had been in place because of the center’s proximity to Andrews Air Force Base. Then the site needed to be rezoned from industrial to commercial use. The new zoning was approved Oct. 31, permits were expedited and Roses opened six months after the lease was signed.
Amann said he envisions the entire shopping center — 218,000 square feet — will be leased within the next six months. He said he is negotiating to lease the two other large spaces to a furniture store and a grocer. And he is talking to an area farm about locating a farmers market at the plaza, he said.
Sales at Roses have been strong, officials say, and last week, the store brought in an additional 200 shopping carts and expanded the number of checkout counters to address the lines that were backed up into the aisles.
“This is a center in transition, and Roses is the catalyst that will bring in the traffic,” Amann said.