Columbia's village centers were once the commercial center of the community. Small shops, a grocery store and often a restaurant or two gave residents a nearby place to go without traveling far from home.
The concept, despite the lack of signage that is prevalent today, worked for years. But as with many things associated with retail, old concepts die. Competition from big box stores, more discerning shoppers and even online shopping have put some village centers on the brink of extinction.
Our first clue to the problem came nearly a decade ago when Giant closed its undersized grocery store in the Wilde Lake Village Center. At the time, Giant said that it was no longer efficient for them to operate a small grocery store there. And with the loss of that anchor store, an uncertain future came to the rest of the center. Immediate reaction was to bring in a boutique grocery store, but it never proved feasible. And while the debate went on, the problem festered for about eight years. Today, renovations are under way at Wilde Lake, thought similar challenges are being seen in other centers, most notably in Long Reach, a center the the county just purchased to keep from decaying.
After years of looking for the right mix, a study released last week gives a little insight into the challenges ahead for village centers. The study, commissioned last December by the Columbia Association, in conjunction with Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Economic Development Authority, does not delve into specifics for each center – that comes at an April 23 public hearing – but instead paints an overall picture that the concept must change with retail becoming less viable. Dramatic changes, such as adding residential development like they're doing in Wilde Lake, might very well be considered, according to the study's lead consultant. Restaurants were also viewed as targets to grow centers.
In all, the study confirms what most observers have seen all along, that the village center concept needs to be altered. The next step is to be proactive so that we don't have another situation like Wilde Lake or Long Reach happen again.