This fall, a curious figure appeared on Twitter, purporting to stake a claim to one of Columbia's largest office parks.
His biography, as necessitated by the social media platform, was short but bold, proclaiming him to be "the patron saint of Columbia Gateway Drive." An additional line offered a few more nuggets: "I'm a gentleman, a scholar and I've been known to ride a horse."
The sepia-toned profile picture of Colonel Gateway, as the Twitter personality called himself, revealed a man dressed in Revolutionary War garb, complete with tri-corner hat and button-up jacket; hand resting confidently on a sheathed saber and watchful eyes gazing into the distance.
His tweets, meanwhile, were filled with the archaic turns of phrase one might imagine a soldier of that era to use. An early exhortation: "Unto these employs of the Gateway do I wish a most benevolent and restful of weekends."
Later, full-color photos showed the colonel gallivanting around the Gateway, lunching at local restaurants and picking fights with the office park's geese. In royal-blue suit and powder-white beard, he cut a colorful figure against the Gateway's brick and concrete buildings.
Followers quickly formed theories about who the colonel might be.
"I thought it was someone in the circle of local bloggers or blog readers," Julia McCready, a Columbia resident who writes a blog, Village Green Town Squared, and follows the colonel on Twitter, posited. "I thought it was someone really tuned into the local scene who had a sense of humor."
"He looked very young," said Andrew Liberman, an Ellicott City resident and another colonel-follower. "I didn't know if it was just some kid who found a costume and thought it was funny."
But, beyond the mystery, Howard Countians got the joke. Many commuters along Route 175 have seen the sign marking the exit for Columbia Gateway Drive, which, in the interest of brevity, shortens "Columbia" to just three letters, "Col" – more commonly used as an abbreviation for the military rank of colonel.
"I've lived here my whole life, and I've seen that sign a million times," said Liberman. "When I saw [Gateway's] account, I just thought it was hilarious. It killed me."
Behind the beard
That the experience of misreading the Gateway's exit sign is near-universal, said Jon Barnes, the man behind the account, is what gives the colonel his appeal.
"Somewhere in everyone's mind, at some point, they've seen that sign and thought of the colonel, and many people often will think, wouldn't it be funny if the colonel was a real guy? Everyone has had that idea," he said.
But Barnes, who works as communications director for ADG Creative, an advertising, marketing and design firm headquartered in the Gateway, decided to take that fleeting thought a step further.
Last September, he and some of his coworkers started fleshing out the Colonel Gateway character "with a $99 budget and a hope and a prayer."
The goal, he says, is nothing less than to unify the scattered employees of the Gateway.
On a frigid day in early February, Barnes donned the colonel's attire and set up camp in a wooded knoll along the Gateway to elaborate on his plans.
"I think everyone is connected to the Gateway," he said in the voice he adopts while dressed as the colonel, an authoritative tenor tinged with a faux British accent.
"I believe, if you look at the extraordinary volume of businesses and professionals in this 2-mile loop, you will find an extraordinarily high percentage of individuals working who are already connected with their colleagues and peers who they may work across the street from, yet never know it. My mission is to change that, and in a world full of isolating technology and hurried, busy franticness, there seem [to be] very few initiatives designed to connect us together in substantial ways."
It's a daunting task: the 630-acre Gateway is workplace for more than 17,000 people, scattered throughout more than 50 companies.
Barnes plans to start small. He's got a meet-and-greet happy hour with the colonel scheduled, with tongue firmly in cheek, for April Fools' Day at AIDA Bistro, a wine bar in the office park. Later this spring, he plans to run a 5K around the Gateway in full uniform.
Businesses around the Gateway have embraced the initiative.
"To have the colonel here representing our turf is a wonderful thing," said Joe Barbera, who owns AIDA Bistro. "Because we're not a neighborhood, you kind of lose the identity of what the Gateway is all about, and the thriving community we have back here. The colonel really brings visibility to the park."
"I thought it was kind of a neat thing to make the Gateway park a little more exciting, more personal," said Nikki McGowan, who operates a food truck called Madame BBQ that stops by the Gateway at lunchtime. "It's kind of neat to have a Columbia mascot."
Even the Gateway's property management company, the Corporate Office Properties Trust, is getting in on the fun. They're co-sponsors of the April happy hour.
"I think he's a great addition unifying the nation states of the gateway. Every nation needs a leader – why not Colonel Gateway?" said Justin Noe, manager of business development for COPT.
Though Barnes has not yet publicly proclaimed the colonel's affiliation with ADG Creative, some Twitter followers have begun to catch on.
McCready began to suspect a link to the company after ADG put out a Valentine's Day video ode to the Gateway that included footage of the colonel rapping.
"I must admit that made me a little sad at first, because that means he's really a commercial entity and not just the product of someone's zany, fun-loving imagination," she said. But, she added, the realization didn't ruin the colonel for her. "His online persona has been sweet and funny and respectful, and I think his Twitter presence has added some excitement and fun to the local scene."
Barnes understands the way his affiliation might come across, though he points out the colonel has been more of a side project than an all-out campaign.
Once word started to leak, he said, "This was like one of those things when you find out some really cool viral video was just sponsored by some big, faceless, corporate brand. It kind of strips away the magic. But I think in this case, whether or not we get paid to do this, whether or not we're at ADG, this is a thing, this is what we're doing.
"Whatever happens, it's for the people. The colonel is Columbia Gateway's icon."
He hopes the colonel's message of unity will continue to spread.
"Other goals are to engage on the Twitters with the many followers and many who have not yet followed the colonel," he said, in his colonel voice. "I believe there are many in this business park who are on the social media and on the line, and I must meet them there."
"And after that? I don't know – ride horses into the sunset, perhaps."