Walking into the Frederick Towne Mall today is more like entering a graveyard of shopping's past than the bustling mecca of retail it once was.
Gates shutter once-thriving stores, now devoid of merchandise, with piles of shelves and display racks littering the floor. Some, like the former FYE, still display posters advertising games and movies long moved to the discount bin.
Others, like Long John Silver's, still bear their iconic stylings — faux sea pillars and ropes to mimic a maritime theme. A rope and a security guard prevent anyone from entering the half of the mall closest to Home Depot via the mall's hallways.
The store fronts might as well be gravestones. Bon-Ton, 1972-2011; CVS, formerly People's drug store, 1972-2012.
Although it was once home to dozens of stores, just two remain — Boscov's and John's Hallmark. A third, Joey's Bargain Outlet, closed shortly after Memorial Day, according to store owner Barry John.
The Home Depot on the property remains in business, but doesn't directly connect to the mall.
Just five miles away from U.S. 40 and the city's west side, the Francis Scott Key Mall hums with activity. Mothers push children in strollers; groups of teenagers laugh over snacks from food vendors; shoppers carrying bags bustle back and forth on polished floors between the stores. A few stores are empty, but it's not blatant.
Although built four years apart — Frederick Towne Mall opened in 1972, and FSK Mall, located off Interstate 270, opened in 1978 — the two malls diverged wildly in the 40 years since.
When the Frederick Towne Mall opened in 1972, it was a tidal change in shopping in Frederick County.
Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Dist. 3A), who has lived in Frederick County his whole life, said even the concept of mall shopping was unprecedented.
“We'd had strip centers, but the mall was a new thing to us,” Clagett said.
Former Frederick County Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson, Jr. said Frederick Towne Mall's major draw was free parking, sparse in the downtown shopping district.
“You had all kinds of stores, basically the same stores, the same types of stores, but you had the parking,” Thompson said. “You had a choice between doing your shopping downtown, basically outside in the weather, versus going to a place that is a mall, in an oasis of free parking.”
Thompson, who worked at the mall for several years in the '70s and early '80s, said the building would be packed during the holiday shopping season.
“Everybody had to come to the mall,” Thompson said. “For a lot of folks, the only time they came to the mall was during the Christmas shopping season. It was a brand-new experience for people that had all their lives done their Christmas shopping in downtown Frederick.”
He said the novelty factor of the mall also caught people's interest.
“All of the sudden you go to this place — it was a change,” Thompson said. “You were inside a building, but the storefronts looked like they were along the street; it was different. Now you wouldn't think twice about it, but it was different then.”
When the Francis Scott Key Mall opened four years later, there was less fanfare. Thompson said some of the appeal of mall shopping had worn thin by the time the FSK mall opened.
“It wasn't as much because that was the second mall,” Thompson said. “Obviously, the first grabs all the attention.”
The FSK Mall offered some larger department stores — Leggett's, which was replaced by J.C. Penney; Hess's, which became Hecht's and then Macy's, as well as a significantly larger amount of retail space. The mall, renovated in 1991, according to owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust's website, currently has more than 700,000 square feet, compared to about 602,000 at the Frederick Towne Mall.
Richard Griffin, the city's director of economic development, said the FSK mall offered a different type of shopping experience for Frederick residents.
“The Francis Scott Key Mall, the new mall, which of course is no longer new, offered more space and more department stores,” Griffin said.
Retail's changing face
The two malls continued to coexist, both serving large numbers of customers, until just a few years ago, when things went south at the Frederick Towne Mall, which now finds itself listed on deadmalls.com, an online database of lifeless retail shopping, while the FSK mall is filled with customers.
There are myriad suggestions as to what signalled the death knell for the Fredericktowne Mall while the FSK Mall continues to thrive.
Barry John, who used to own a “jumparoo” store, with inflatable bounce activities for children and an arcade, as well as the bargain outlet, said Bon-Ton's closing was the last straw for attracting customers.
“We did quite well until the Bon-Ton closed,” he said. “People had to walk through to go from Bon-Ton to Boscov's, and they'd stop in.”
John Slocum, owner of John's Hallmark, said the major problem was when Home Depot leased a space formerly occupied by Montgomery Ward.
“As far as retail, that was the death blow to the shopping center,” he said. “That needed to be, in my opinion, a retail operation, or multiple retail operations. It works fine for Home Depot, but not the mall.”
Slocum said he was in the process of looking for a new location for his store, but that it was difficult to find an affordable place to relocate.
“I still have regulars, but we don't get the foot traffic,” Slocum said. “A lot of people are under the impression that the mall had shut down.”
Stephen Ifshin, chairman of DLC Management Corp., said his firm was brought in by Fredericktowne Mall Associates, which owns the mall, about two years ago, but that the mall was already on the verge of going over the cliff.
“The mall had clearly failed when we came on,” Ifshin said, adding that the mall's smaller size was a factor in its failing, as it was unable to attract the anchors of its crosstown rival.
“Those malls across the country needed to be redeveloped,” he said. “Frederick Towne Mall is no exception.”
The city has made some attempts to entice developers and retailers to the Golden Mile area.
Boscov's received tax credits for its development of the area, according to Griffin, and the Frederick Board of Aldermen voted to restore the Golden Mile Property Rehabilitation tax credit on July 19. The credit saves owners a percentage of the tax payment that would be increased after renovations add to property values.
Clagett said the opportunities for development in the surrounding area weren't available near the Frederick Towne Mall, leading to its problems.
“On [U.S.] 40, there was no opportunity behind the mall for anything,” Clagett said. “One of the obvious problems was the disconnect between the shopping centers and the mall. ... There were problems with the development that came into the area. The kind of development didn't support higher-end stores.”
While theories abound for the Frederick Towne Mall's failure, many people point to adjacent development for the FSK Mall's success.
Clagett, who also owns a real estate firm in Frederick, said the site planning of the FSK Mall, which allowed for restaurants and other stores along the edge of the development, was a major factor in its success.
“The Key Mall had a different setup,” Clagett said. “It was laid out for all kinds of fast-food places, restaurants. It had the only hotel.”
Clagett also said the mall benefited from development of stores around it — Target and Wal-Mart are both nearby, as well as several other shopping centers.
“When the big boxes rolled in, they benefited,” Clagett said. “... All the traffic came to that area. The in-line stores and the anchors to the mall, they were lucky.”
Bill DeTora, the general manager of the FSK Mall, agreed.
“It seems like all the shopping has come to this end of town, with the Target and the Wal-Mart and the Best Buy,” he said. “With that, we've seen that traffic sustain itself here.”
DeTora said the mall has had an occupancy rate near 95 percent since the Barnes & Noble located there in 2007, with just a couple of vacancies in the 75 retail spaces available. He attributed the mall's ongoing success to an ever-evolving set of stores, and the atmosphere.
“We're a family-friendly, family-oriented place,” he said. “We have a lot of tenants that people like to shop, and we're always keeping it vibrant with new tenants. We change one or two tenants each year. We think it's for the better.”
For shoppers, the downfall of the mall is just part of a changing retail landscape.
Germantown resident Martha Smith, who was shopping at Boscov's on July 3, said she would make frequent trips to the Frederick Towne Mall for shopping in the past, but had slowed her frequency since Bon-Ton closed.
“I do miss the mall,” she said. “If I didn't find it [at Boscov's] I'd find it in Bon-Ton. I knew it was slowly but surely closing, and I hadn't been here in four or five months. I had to check online and make sure it was still open.”
Robin Harvey of Frederick, who also was shopping at Boscov's on July 3, lamented the loss of the mall's previously vibrant set of stores.
“Once the Bon-Ton went out, I think this mall really changed,” she said.
Harvey said she also shops at the FSK Mall, but that it doesn't have stores that cater to her shopping needs like the Frederick Towne Mall used to.
“It seems as though it attracts a younger crowd,” she said, referring to the FSK Mall. “It's more teens and younger clothing stores. I'd love to see some more higher-end stores, Boscov's-type stores there.”
While there are three new additions joining the FSK Mall — A Best Buy Mobile and P.S. From Aeropostale clothing store opened in April and May, respectively, and Zumiez clothing store is set to open the fall, according to a press release — the Frederick Towne Mall is on its last days.
Ifshin doesn't know when the mall might face the wrecking ball, but the company is working toward changing its zoning with the city in order to find new tenants for the space.
He also said he hoped to be involved with the redevelopment plan for the entire Golden Mile, which is an ongoing city project. Frederick's planning commission recommended approval of the plan at its Aug. 13 meeting, but it still has to be approved by the Frederick Board of Aldermen. A date has not been set.
“We haven't really done any hard planning yet,” Ifshin said. “... It's hard to plan for something that's indeterminate at the moment, but there's also the Golden Mile redevelopment plan, which we would more than like to be a part of. It's hard for us to lay out any specific development plans.”