As employees opened the doors of the Kohl’s in Aspen Hill, several dozen shoppers crowded inside the front entrance to check out the department store chain’s new location. Outside, county officials and developers congratulated each other on opening Northgate Plaza shopping center’s newest tennant.
Montgomery County Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-Dist.3) said during the grand opening on Sept. 26 that his parents live about two miles down the street and will probably visit Kohl’s often.
“It clearly is an example of the type of redevelopment that we want,” Andrews said. “This will be a catalyst for this area and a wonderful store for people to shop at.”
Bruce Lee, whose family has owned Northgate Plaza since 1958, said the Kohl’s building first housed a W.T. Grant department store when it was built in the 1960s. An A&P grocery store moved in around 1976 and was later converted into a Super Fresh, also owned by A&P. Super Fresh occupied the building until 2010, when A&P filed for bankruptcy nationwide.
Lee said the building has been sitting vacant since then.
“Aspen Hill has always been a good retail market, and when you have a national tenant filing bankruptcy, it’s not a reflection on Aspen Hill,” he said.
Companies were reluctant to move into the space, however, because the store is smaller than most large, modern grocery stores at 60,000 square feet, Lee said. Now, Lee is renovating the rest of the shopping center, and he hopes that a good anchor tenant will bring business to the smaller stores nearby.
Jerry Rosenbaum, who owns Classic Hair Design in Northgate Plaza, said his business has dropped about 75 percent since Super Fresh left the shopping center. He has since borrowed $40,000 to keep his business afloat while he waits for a new anchor store to bring customers back in.
“I’ve been betting on Kohl’s,” he said, laughing. “I really have confidence that they’re going to make a big difference.”
Classic Hair Design used to get a lot of customers walking over from a neighboring office building on their lunch breaks, Rosenbaum said, and he hopes the new Kohl’s will likewise bring an influx of potential customers to the neighborhood.
Mary-Jo Ember has owned and operated Aspen Hill Florist in Northgate, just across the parking lot from Kohl’s, for about 28 years. She said the new store has already introduced potential customers to her business at both the grand opening and the soft opening the previous Sunday.
“We haven’t been open on a Sunday in several years, because there would just be nobody coming in,” she said. “The shopping center was packed, and there were groups of people just walking around.”
Ember said she has seen her business decline over the past five years as people cut discretionary purchases, like flowers, from their budgets. She hopes Kohl’s will bring the kind of people to the area who have extra money to spend.
“The type of customers Kohl’s gets would be the type of customer I’d get,” she said.
Althea McKenzie runs the liturgical dance ministry at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church just across the street from the shopping center and has lived between Aspen Hill and Wheaton for 22 years.
"We've been in a position for development," she said. "I know the development from Wheaton doesn't really come this far, but to have this here is a big push to bring more people into the community [and] to bring the jobs. That's huge."
Store manager Josh Cavaness said the new Kohl’s has hired 115 people so far, most of whom live nearby.
McKenzie and two other dancers performed during the grand opening ceremony for the store. Although she welcomes the new Kohl's, she said she is concerned about security and whether traffic will increase on the road between the store and the church.
Steve Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, said the existing roads should be able to handle any increase in traffic since they have already accommodated a grocery store and since the store will not open until after the morning rush hour.
Silverman said the new Kohl’s did not receive any economic development fund money or tax incentives, but the county did help the store get through the permitting process. Although he does not want to overstate the economic impact of one store, he thinks the new Kohl’s and renovations to the surrounding buildings will boost business in the neighborhood.
“It’s the first new major retail store in Aspen Hill since, I think, Home Depot opened up, so it’s a big win for Aspen Hill,” he said. “We think it’ll help the small businesses in that area, because people who will be coming to Kohl’s will also shop at other places they see [nearby].”
Kohl’s, which turns 50 this year, also officially opened 11 other stores nationwide Sept. 26.