Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thunderdome on the Little Patuxent

I wanted to stay home the other night.  Michigan State was playing North Carolina in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.  A fifth seed versus a fourth seed, with the winner likely to face off in the next round against a formidable University of South Carolina team coached by Philadelphia’s own Dawn Staley.  The game promised two solid hours of hoops-centric entertainment.

But as a member of a local village board, a civic organization designed to promote the “health, safety, common good and social welfare of the owners of property in, and the residents of…the Village of Wilde Lake,” I found myself instead at a community hall with around 100 of my neighbors, all of whom had braved a late March snow-fall to attend an event called the “Columbia Market Analysis and Economic Development Services” presentation (the second of a planned three public meetings on this topic). It was shaping up to be the Empire Strikes Back of the Market Study trilogy.  A must-see.

I sat in the back, close to the entrance of the theatre room in the Slayton House.  Doors provide a natural choke point.  Like the Greeks at Thermopylae, I knew any numerical advantage any crazed attackers might possess would be diminished by their need to come through single-file.  This was a comforting thought.

However, as most of my primarily middle-aged neighbors were ensconced in their seats, facing front and showing no overt signs of imminent physical hostility, I turned my attention to the presenters, who were calling the meeting to order.

The PowerPoint deck was displayed on the screen.  Our Director of Community Building and Open Space Services Bureau ably provided a succinct introduction to the evening’s proceedings.   Essentially, we would be glimpsing into the future of Columbia as an economic entity.  We would hear from the Experts regarding what businesses could work, and where, and why.

[I feel as though a brief digression is in order for those who are unaware of Columbia’s history.  What follows is a bit reductionist, so please bear with me:

Columbia is what is known as an unincorporated “census designated place.”  Contrary to appearances, we are not a city in the traditional sense.  With a population of around 100,000, Columbia is the second largest community in the state of Maryland (Baltimore being the largest).  However, not being an incorporated municipality, most local government functions reside with either the county government (Howard County) or with a curious local entity known as the Columbia Association.  The Columbia Association, or CA for short, would be the rough equivalent of a city council…with powers more closely aligned with that of a parks and recreation department of a mid-sized American city, with some notable exceptions and responsibilities unique to our planned community.

Within that community are 10 villages, really nine villages and an embryonic urban core called the Town Center, at the center of the center is our Mall and an area known as Symphony Woods, within which is a popular outdoor concert venue known as Merriweather Post Pavilion.  The population of the 10 villages ranges from slightly north of three thousand to over 14,000.] 

This demographic information is important to bear in mind, given the findings that were presented last night.  What follows is my interpretation of the key takeaways. 

Groceries:  When Columbia was founded, the idea was that each of the villages, within what is referred to as their village centers (places that would include retail outlets as well as community facilities), would have its own grocery store.

Given the emphasis the presenters placed on the developments in the space traditionally occupied by supermarkets (the rise of hypermarkets (most notably Wal-Mart), the entrance of pharmacies into the food and beverage retail marketplace, and the growth of niche or specialty players, ranging from Trader Joe’s to “ethnic” supermarkets), it is clear that the old model is now considered, as Ron Ziegler might have put it, inoperative. 

In short, you want a new traditional grocery store like Giant (or Heaven Forbid, Safeway) within walking distance of your abode?  Hard cheese, my friend.   Seriously, if you want to buy some hard cheese, you will need to burn some gasoline.

Village Center retail outlets:  Are you a Mom and Pop store? Fantastic…as long as you are selling shawarma.  With Xers and Millennials more willing to spend their hard-earned dollars dining out compared to other age cohorts, the presenters believe that the village centers are ideal locations for restaurants and other food and beverage service-centric establishments.  

Hotels:  given our proximity to Washington D.C., our hotels are geared towards Federal Government contractors.  In short, don’t expect five-star accommodations anytime soon.

Growth/Development:  It is clear that the presenters believe that a section of our community, located in the southeastern quadrant of Columbia, is primed to be the Next Big Thing, at least from a commercial/retail perspective.  Many shopping centers already exist in this area, which was referred to by the efficient yet clunky acronym GEDS (GE Appliance Facility – Dobbin Road – Snowden River Parkway corridors).  This area could very well develop into Town Center II, but we will leave that for a future discussion.  

At this point, my notes get sketchy.  Several elected officials were seated in the row immediately behind me, and they were talking amongst themselves, presumably discussing the findings.  Either that or plotting the best means for Howard County to secede from the State of Maryland…and debating if the new state capital should be housed closer to the Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia or The Rumor Mill in Ellicott City. 

Following the conclusion of the presentation, a Q & A session broke out.  The first three questions from the audience nailed the source of the menace I noticed in the room earlier that evening: the Specter of Apprehension…about subsidized housing and safety in the villages, about change, about the future. 

One would think that more area residents would express a feeling of confidence about the days ahead.  On paper, there should be a greater sense of security. Howard County is, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the “second wealthiest county by median household in the United States.”  Of course there is poverty here too…many families in our neighborhoods are struggling to get by.  But the folks at this forum were, primarily, solidly middle-class. Not 1%ers, but people who were doing OK…all things considered.  Yet they were anxious.  What does this say about Columbia? About the American Dream?

Heavy questions, which remain unanswered on this bright Thursday morning. Time to go forth and launch into the day.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

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