Downtown's secret weapon: The new outlet mall

August 02, 1998

Tim RowlandPrime Retail's Hagerstown outlet stores will officially open for business next weekend and, with some thought, local business, tourism and downtown leaders will see this as an opportunity that goes beyond 40-percent-off on footwear.

Outlets are the free radicals of a local economy, likely to have significant and somewhat unpredictable impacts on the community.

With all due respect to the Civil War, from the day it opens, Prime Retail will become the county's number one tourist destination. It will affect traffic patterns, pushing more local residents onto Downsville Pike (particularly once the new I-70 interchange is completed) to avoid outlet mall congestion.

With the traffic, pressure will be increased to rezone the ground to allow gas stations, hotels and convenience stores. Dominoes will continue to drop. If Prime Retail is successful, there will be other outlets to follow. There will be more empty gas tanks and stomachs to fill, more wallets to empty and more bored husbands wandering around and wondering what else Washington County has to offer.


Unlike a Wal-Mart, outlets have a negligible effect on local businesses - especially once the newness wears off. Probably 80 percent of the people who walk through Prime Retail's doors will be from some other county.

They will be day shoppers who drive from the Baltimore and Washington suburbs specifically to shop, and drive-bys - vacationers and snowbirds who drop in on their way to the beaches in the south or the mountains in the north.

Many of these people will be stopping in Washington County for the first time, and it would pay to be ready for them.

The local tourist bureau has already set up shop in the outlets, and Hagerstown leaders are working out the details for easy transportation from the mall to the downtown.

A logical question is what an outlet shopper could possibly want with downtown Hagerstown, and the correct answer is food and arts.

Traditionally, restaurants follow the crowds. Hagerstown has done it backwards. The restaurants are in place, and people are beginning to come to the city if for no other reason than to eat.

With the opening of the impressive Roccoco, downtown now has at least five legitimate destination-style eateries, including the Washington Spy, Schmankerl Stube, Twilight's and Harry's House of Blues.

Add the theaters and galleries and you have a pretty decent attraction. City officials say they also have an eye toward attracting stores downtown that would complement, but not duplicate those in the outlets.

Couple this with the city's emphasis on downtown home ownership and the foundations are in place for some new city life. It will be different from the old days of traditional retail stores and offices, but many of the most successful downtowns I've seen recently are filled with two things: Flower boxes and people from other states. It's worth a shot.

Some of these artsy, windowbox towns have outlet shopping too, and they use it to their advantage by offering shopping tours packaged with some other local event.

For example, a couple could get a hotel room, a pack of discount coupons for the outlets, dinner vouchers and tickets to the local theater.

Such a plan would dovetail beautifully with the Blues Fest, the Mountain Green concert series, Suns baseball games or Civil War tours. For a personal touch, send them home with a basket of Smithsburg peaches, a box of pastries from the Cookie Jar or a dozen ears of Lehman's sweet corn.

In short, the outlets give Washington County something it's never really had: A dependable, continuous wave of out-of-county people who at least to some degree have money and a spirit of adventure.

If only one shopper in 20 devotes some time to poking around Washington County beyond the mall parking lot, it will be a very real and positive effect for the community at large.

Local leaders shouldn't be shy about parading our considerable assets before these shoppers and letting them know there is more to Washington County than cheap sneakers.

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