--cont from front page--
Grand opening festivities include a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a fall fashion show, performances by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra's brass quintet and a contest with a $5,000 shopping spree as the prize. A 1,000-pound cake will be cut into thousands of pieces and handed out to customers.
"It will be exciting. It will make people happy we're here and want to be here," said Alice Rosen, assistant general manager and marketing director for the center, which is near the interchange of Interstate 70 and Md. 65
The grand opening, for which 51 stores are to be open for business, is mostly a formality. Many stores have been open for two weeks and on Thursday 30 were open for business.
Several store managers reported brisk sales, fueled mainly by media coverage and word-of-mouth, during the "soft opening" period. Last weekend was particularly busy, they said.
Store officials anticipate bigger things starting today.
"We're tickled to death. We think it's going to be wonderful," said Sherry Austin, district manager for Royce Hosiery, a sock outlet that opened Wednesday.
The Baltimore-based Prime Retail, which has 50 outlet centers in 26 states, announced more than three years ago that it wanted to build an outlet center near Hagerstown.
Construction was delayed several times as the company went through a legal battle with Blue Ridge Outlets in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a prolonged rezoning, necessary for the center to be built on the site.
"It's been one of the longest roads," said Brian Lewbart, director of public relations for Prime Retail.
The village-style outlet mall is designed with rows of stores facing each other across open landscaped courtyards and covered sidewalks. The center's exterior has a Southwest motif, with facades painted yellow and brick red.
The center also features a food court, a children's playground, an ATM, and a drop box for mailing packages.
"I'm still a little bit lost because I haven't figured out where everything is yet," said Sheila Colvin, 31, who spent Wednesday morning at the center buying enough clothes to fill two shopping bags.
Colvin and other early-bird shoppers said they were impressed with the selection of stores, many of which they previously had to travel to Martinsburg or the metropolitan area to find.
"You get your big names in our area, finally," said Christine Mills, 44, of Big Pool.
Her daughter, Deneen Lane, said she was impressed with the layout and design of the center.
"It's better than what I thought it would be," said Lane, 25, of Hagerstown.
This section of the Prime Outlets center is the first of what is planned as a three-phase construction project for the center.
The initial section, with room for 60 stores, will employ 400 retail, management and maintenance workers.
The second phase of about 100,000 square feet is under construction and is expected to open in time for this year's holiday shopping season. It is to have 25 stores
A final phase, to be added as more leases are signed, will give the outlet center a total of 100 stores covering more than 418,000 square feet, with an estimated 800 employees.
Prime Retail estimates the first phase will produce $40 million to $60 million a year in sales, and will generate state sales taxes of between $2 million and $3 million.
About 3 million people, many from the Baltimore and Washington areas, are expected to visit the outlet center annually, according to Prime Retail.
The outlet center's customer service center doubles as a visitors' center, where shoppers can pick up pamphlets about local attractions or get assistance from Prime Retail employees.
"Our people will be able to direct them and make suggestions," Rosen said.
Ben Hart, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the center should bring more visitors to tourist locations in the county and encourage the development of new tourism sites.
"It gives us the opportunity to introduce our product to people who wouldn't even think of us," Hart said.
That has been the experience in Grove City, Pa., about an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh, where a Prime Retail mall drew 4.6 million people to the area last year, said Brad Ehrhart, assistant director of the Penn-Northwest Development Corp.
"It's been a great experience," Ehrhart said of the 136-store Grove City Factory Shops, which opened four years ago.
About the only problem related to the Grove City mall has been traffic, he said. On busy weekends, cars back up on a nearby interstate highway.
"That has been an issue," Ehrhart said.
Although Prime Retail officials said they are confident that the 1,800 parking spaces and two entrances will handle the swarm of shoppers, they have taken extra precautions in preparation for the large number of shoppers expected this weekend.
The company has arranged for Washington County sheriff's deputies and State Highway Administration personnel to help direct cars coming off I-70 onto Md. 65 and then into the outlet center parking lot.
Many Hagerstown-area residents likely will use the Oak Ridge Drive entrance to avoid much of the tourist traffic.
"We think we're doing what we need to do to keep traffic flowing," Lewbart said.