Rural strip mall: why struggle for tenants, when there’s nothing else around?

When it comes to human-conceived implements—tools—the maxim “form follows function” usually applies.  Whether it be a saw, a trowel, a baster, or a protractor, the object in question has evolved to fit the best intersection of ergonomics (most conducive to the human hand) and its capacity to achieve a desired result as a certain implement: in carpentry, gardening, cooking, or surveying.  But what about the end product, after we hominids put those tools to use?  Most specifically, what about involves a succession of objectives achieved from tools, resulting in a more complicated piece of furniture, a garden, a meal, or a plat?  Or, for the purposes of this article, a building?

I’ve ruminated on how, when it comes to structures, the inverse of that initial aphorism is usually far more appropriate.  That is, function follows form.  When it comes to real estate, structures—commercial, residential, industrial, institutional—nearly always outlast the original intended use, and the successive uses typically require some degree of modification, but not a lot—otherwise there’s likely another building in the vicinity that more closely aligns with the successive users’ needs.  In short, a building already exists, and the tenant that occupies it is the one that capitalizes on its existing physicality, requiring the minimum number of alterations possible.  I’ve pontificated on this topic numerous times in the past, but it’s been awhile, and it’s usually involved a formerly anomalous but increasingly commonplace adaptive re-use: e.g., an old industrial building getting converted into apartments, the signature offices of a defunct manufacturer turning into a nostalgia-oriented museum or a mixed-use festival marketplace.  But what if it’s just a weird little rural strip mall that hasn’t ever really changed?

That’s precisely what I encountered in Charlotte Hall, Maryland.  An assuming stretch of highway in southern Maryland ostensibly named after the Charlotte Hall Military Academy, an institution that closed its doors in 1976 after operating as a school for just over two centuries.  That’s right: the Charlotte after which this unincorporated community owes its name was Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III—her charitable dedication to colonial Maryland when it like the other 12 were still subjects of the British Empire.  (The old facility now operates as a veterans home.)  Charlotte Hall the community occupies an unusual position: it is almost perfectly equidistant from Washington DC, and Point Lookout State Park, the southernmost tip of Maryland on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay.  Rural though it feels, the surrounding St. Mary’s County still falls within the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) of Washington, appealing to federal workers willing to put up with a long commute while escaping the high home prices.  Proximity has spurred the county’s population past 100,000 people, but its large area lacs a real nucleus; the county seat of Leonardtown has a population of only 4,500.  To this day, huge expanses of St. Mary’s County remain dominated by agriculture, as well as a sizable Old Order Amish Community. Even with all this growth, the entire county at this point in 2022 has only one freestanding Starbucks unaffiliated with a supermarket.  Just one. Heaven forfend.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Charlotte Hall Center has the trappings of a rural-oriented shopping center off the side of a high-profile highway: Maryland State Road 5, which largely serves as the spine within St. Mary’s County.  And the tenants reflect what one might expect from a tired, outmoded strip mall typology from the 1970s or thereabouts:

rural strip mall in Charlotte Hall, MD

The mom-and-pop coffee shop in the foreground may be the most conventional denizen of this rural strip mall, but most of the others aren’t exactly credit tenants: that is, not the reliable chains or upmarket vendors that a shopping center strives to attract.  Notice the other three—a  plumbing company, a paint supply center, and Calvary Youth—the young-adult wing of a church that also has its primary home in another spot in the same strip mall.  Pivot to the right and it’s mostly the same:

rural strip mall in Charlotte Hall, MD

A branch of the US Postal service has opted to lease space in this rural strip mall rather than build its own structure.  I haven’t determined what might prompt various USPS branches to opt for new construction versus a long-term lease, but I would guess that a branch that expects its spatial needs to change over time would prefer a lease rather than a design-build effort.  Since St. Mary’s County has grown at a fair clip in recent years, the management of this branch might be waiting for population to stabilize around Charlotte Hall before settling on its own bricks-and-mortar location.

The other two tenants in the above photo are equally interesting: a real estate office, and, to the far left with a difficult-to-read sign, the Calvary Chapel to which Calvary Youth presumably affiliates.  In short, Charlotte Hall Center features office and service-oriented uses, the type that doesn’t necessarily need a strip mall with a huge parking lot, and a storefront church, which is nearly always an indicator of commercial real estate with low leasing rates.   Precious little of the in-line stores at Charlotte Hall Center actually sell merchandise—maybe the paint supply center—and aside from the coffee shop and a non-visible pizza parlor, nothing at Charlotte Hall Center is a restaurant.  The fundamental architecture of this building doesn’t support retail; notice the unusually small windows.  Most retailers want big, bold open fenestration that allows them to display their merchandise as easily as possible, but these windows are small, shrouded in the shadow from the awning, and almost encourage privacy.  The office-based uses (like the realtor) have their blinds drawn, as one might expect if there are nothing but computers on the other side.  And the cornice line at the end of the slope to the teal corrugated tin roof is not a lot of space for big, bold signage.  Storefronts that depend on high visibility (a condition more common with retail) aren’t likely to opt for this when other strip malls might allow big, backlit signage.

Did the developers of this rural strip mall intend for the place to serve office tenants?  It’s not clear to me, but it sure looks like the goal was retail-oriented shopping (rather than services), especially when another photo pivot reveals the anchor tenant.

rural strip mall in Charlotte Hall, MD

It’s a thrift store called Hooks and Hangers, but, judging from the fenestration, this space at one time hosted a small supermarket.  Notice the slit windows at the upper portion of the wall; this typifies the supermarket fenestration, which generally uses exterior walls to host merchandise, so big windows are a no-go.  But tiny windows are not that desirable for most sellers of merchandise, except grocery stores—and the steadily urbanizing area around Charlotte Hall probably prompted a larger floor space for groceries than this one allowed; the chain grocer Food Lion has a location a half-mile down the street.  Thus, this anchor location at Charlotte Hall Center now hosts a thrift store—the sort of place that would love windows to display merchandise, but also loves the inevitably low lease rates at this particular location.

Fundamentally, Charlotte Hall Center is a downmarket strip mall that doesn’t betray its rural roots.  It’s competing with fewer other rural strip malls and therefore its owner has less incentive to upgrade it.  Also part of the shopping complex is a feature one would never see in the busy suburban Fairfax County or elsewhere within the DC beltway: there in the distance are a bunch of farmers market stalls.

This isn’t your kooky cat-owning childless aunt’s posh farmers market: it’s most more of an outpost of the county fairgrounds.  Probably features actual Amish farmers selling their food products or wares.  But it also includes vendors who sell various resale items, antiques, or thrift store merchandise.  And all of the vendors at the farmers market are—typical of most farmers markets—operating on the premises on a temporary, usually single-day basis.  From what I can tell, this farmers market, though affiliated with the rural strip mall, operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The hours are typical not just of farmers markets in general, but also of weekend auctions, liquidations, and flea markets.  While that wealthy aunt probably buys her succulents and hemp potholders from an urban market that claims a closeted-off part of a street or other public right-of-way, the farmers market stalls at Charlotte Hall Center claim dedicated space, permanently devoted to a two-day agora.  Nothing wrong with this approach, but if a commercial activity only operates two days a week, odds are strong that the land under it is not worth a great deal.

None of the conditions that characterize Charlotte Hall Center’s less-than-highbrow status would be of great surprise, if it weren’t for the fact that it belies the income levels of the area.  St. Mary’s County is still fundamentally rural in character: very little of the land is incorporated, most emergency services come from a county sheriff or volunteer fire department, and I suspect that a majority of the homes in the county do not belong to a municipal water/sewer supply.  Well water and septic are the name of the game.  All fine and good for a rural area, but St. Mary’s County has incomes higher than the median for rural America—much higher.  The 2021 American Community Survey estimates suggest the household median was $108,397—about one-third higher than the media for the country as a whole.

With incomes like these, Charlotte Hall should support a strip mall with a Talbots, a Total Wine and More, a Banana Republic, a Barnes and Noble, and an REI.  But, as I said, the entire county at this time only supports a single freestanding Starbucks.  Incomes are high, but income density remains low.  The scattershot exurban development that characterizes St. Mary’s County does not support high-end or even upper-middle level retail; too many other opportunities exist within the beltway to shop at exactly the aforementioned shops.  A rural strip mall seems passé.  People move to St. Mary’s county to get away from the grind.  And thus, the market forces around Charlotte Hall only support what is visible in the photos featured.  No incentive for fancier tenants.  And more importantly, no incentive for a developer to transform the intrinsically outmoded architecture in this rural strip mall so that it could command higher leases and attract tenants more suitable for retail.  And a strip mall that looks like this will settle for what it can get: plumbers, realtors, and a post office.

Function follows form.  The trowel might help tend a garden to perfection, but the best trowel in the world might only grow dandelions if the soil isn’t right.

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3 thoughts on “Rural strip mall: why struggle for tenants, when there’s nothing else around?

  1. Alex Pline

    Minor correction, I think you meant it’s on the *west* side of the Chesapeake Bay. But to the content of the piece, it doesn’t surprise me it’s “down market” as you say because of the low density rural nature of the area; there just isn’t enough traffic to warrant spending any money on the place and I’m sure the tenants are willing to accept something less than optimal in exchange for low rents. I think you got that exactly right. Who knows what the original uses were (other than where the thrift store is), so not sure why it was designed the way it was. Maybe just what was en vogue at the time? However, I think your comments about high median income level and upscale retail are a little off the mark. This area is culturally very conservative and religious and even with higher incomes and some people perhaps commuting to DC the residents would reject the kinds of retail you mention because they are considered “elitist” and represent a very different urban culture. I think this is a reflection of the underlying cultural values that are at the heart of the urban/rural divide in our country today. Income level is no longer the main marker of this divide, rather religiosity is. It has been my experience with some friends who have left the urbanized parts of this area for rural life even though they are still high earners and the reason has been essentially cultural self sorting to be around people with similar values. I say this not as a value judgement, rather my observation of the current cultural landscape.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Alex–you’re right about Chesapeake Bay. Noted and corrected. And yes, income density is a fair point that probably explains a lot.

      And you’re probably right about the aspect of conservatism that characterizes the area, and how that might affect upscale retailers’ decisions to locate in the area despite the incomes. Conspicuous consumption–even if it just means a fancier grocery store to buy upmarket perishables (not something that’s as easy to flaunt)–is probably held in lower regard in areas like St. Mary’s County.

      The one caveat I might offer is that historically conservative suburban areas to big cities can be both highly religious and have high incomes yet still often support a Talbots, a Barnes and Noble, LL Bean, maybe even a Whole Foods. The western reaches of Allentown, PA hosted all of the above and a pretty conservative voting record. But the income density was higher than it is here in Charlotte Hall. Additionally, those who live in this part of Maryland have only to travel 15 miles closer to DC to find most of what they want–hence weakening the need for upscale shopping, or fancy-looking strip malls, out where they live. But this is just another aspect of income density.

      Conservative spending patterns are much harder to quantify than incomes, but an ill-chosen expansion decision can really wreck a burgeoning chain seeking to make a name for itself. So it’s wiser for them to choose other areas within the enormous “DMV” that have a more surefire pool of customers within a 5-mile radius.

      And yes, I agree with you that income level is less of the dividing tool today and other cultural preferences are more prominent. And, while there are still many highly religious people in urbanized areas, they do comprise a smaller share (and perhaps no longer a majority) in many metros–certainly along the coasts–while rural areas they are still a comfortable majority.

      Reply

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