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Prime competition ... Martinsburg outlets feel the heat

November 28, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

There's a chill in the air as friends Edie Barden and Chris Evans lug three large bags of finds from their first leg of shopping at the Blue Ridge Outlet Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

They've been through only one of the three buildings - the Crawford Building - and the Charlottesville, Va., residents say they are eager to go back and see what the other buildings have to offer.

"It's the first time we've ever been here," said Barden, 31, who said she planned to get all of her Christmas shopping done during their two-day stay in Martinsburg.

Both said they knew about Blue Ridge Outlet Center from billboards they have seen along Interstate 81.

Neither had heard about Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, which opened in August.

As soon as they were told another large outlet mall was a short drive away, they tentatively added it to their next day's agenda.

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Shoppers like Barden and Evans - who'll plan a day or longer trip around outlet shopping - may not view multiple outlet centers as competition for one another.

But as Blue Ridge Outlet Center faces its first holiday shopping season with a formidable competitor a short drive to the north, others worry there won't be enough shoppers like Barden and Evans to go around.

Blue Ridge has lost six stores - Carter's Childrenswear, London Fog, Toy Liquidators, Dress Barn, totes/Sunglass World and Fuller Brush- to Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, which opened at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Sharpsburg Pike in early August.

Tanger Outlet Center, just off Interstate 81 on West King Street, lost one store to Prime Outlets.

Both Martinsburg outlet centers have stores that are duplicated in the village-style Hagerstown center, which is planned to grow by 20 to 30 more stores next year.

What next?




Some Blue Ridge employees and shoppers worry it's only a matter of time before those companies close their Martinsburg stores in favor of Prime Outlets.

"There's been so many stores leave this Blue Ridge, it's kind of scary," said an employee at the Corning Revere Factory Store in Martinsburg in the wake of news that her store, originally scheduled to close in January, would remain open another year.

Unwilling to commute from Martinsburg to Hagerstown for the part-time job, said she hopes sales will warrant keeping her store open.

Her reasons aren't purely job related. The employee, who didn't want to be identified, said she would hate to see the outlet center buildings fall back into disuse.

Others at Blue Ridge aren't worried.

John Brock, owner of Hawkins Leather Co., credits Prime Outlet, which doesn't have a leather shop, with actually helping his business.

"They're bringing them here, and we're selling them," said Brock, who said spillover traffic from Hagerstown has boosted his business by 15 percent.

Shannon Lewis, senior sales associate at Lenox, said it has been a little slower since Prime Outlets opened.

But the store has no plans to close, Lewis said.

"We're the only one, so if people still want Lenox products, they're going to come here," she said.

Serious outlet shoppers will go to both centers, Lewis said.

There is enough retail business in the area to go around, said Leah Walker, manager of the Woolrich outlet and clearance store.

Competition benefits the customer, Walker said.

Outlet history




Blue Ridge Outlet Center, owned by Blue Ridge Outlet Associates Limited Partnership, opened in 1984 in several renovated textile mills on Stephen Street.

It was followed in late 1987 by the Tanger Outlet Center - one of 31 centers around the United States owned by Tanger Factory Outlet Centers Inc.

Blue Ridge owners saw Prime Outlets as a serious threat even before ground was broken on the Hagerstown project.

In 1995, Blue Ridge Outlet Associates filed a breach of contract suit against Baltimore-based Prime Group, alleging the company deliberately sought confidential marketing and leasing information for its own benefit during negotiations to buy Blue Ridge in October 1993.

Prime Group pulled out of the deal to buy Blue Ridge and later announced plans to build its own outlets in Hagerstown, the suit alleged.

Alleging the new outlet would seriously impact Blue Ridge's market, the suit asked that the company be barred from construction or made to pay $10 million.

The suit was dismissed in 1996, after a U.S. District Court judge ruled Blue Ridge failed to make its case during three days of testimony.

No changes




Several attempts were made to contact Blue Ridge developer Moncure Chatfield-Taylor by telephone and in person at his office for an interview for this story.

The reporter was told by a secretary that he was in but unavailable. At least four messages were left and not returned.

During a brief telephone conversation in late October, Chatfield-Taylor said there wouldn't be any changes at Blue Ridge during the holiday shopping season because of Prime Outlets.

"It will just be Christmas as usual." Chatfield-Taylor said.

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