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Long Reach center merchants welcome county's help

Corey Samuel said it has been difficult to attract new customers to Community Cutz Barber Shop and Salon in the Long Reach Village Center. Samuel, a manager at the business, said he knows why.

"It's not good," Samuel said Friday about the village center. "We've had six or seven businesses close in the last few months."

Howard County officials said 19 percent of the center's retail property is vacant. That number, however, does not include office space or the 55,000 square feet that used to house Safeway, and, most recently, the Family Market. When you factor in the Safeway space, on which the grocer still pays rent, the retail vacancy balloons to 69 percent.

Help and hope appear to be on the way, though. Last Monday, March 3, the Howard County Council approved legislation that declares the area a blight zone. That will allow the county to purchase and redevelop portions of the property from the current landlord.

The county plans to purchase all the commercial storefronts north of Stonehouse, the Columbia Association-owned village community building, except for Deli Town, a stand-alone building that is privately owned. Celebration Church, located near the center, has plans to purchase and re-purpose the Safeway space, located to the east. The church announced its plans to redevelop that space along with the county in January.

According to Mark Thompson, the county's director of downtown development, the majority owner of the village center, Long Reach Village Associates LLC, a corporation affiliated with Pikesville-based America's Realty, approached the county about purchasing its holdings in the center sometime in the fall 2013.

Thompson said now that bill has been approved, the county will finalize the purchase of the property, which he said could happen in the next 60 to 90 days. Thompson would not disclose a purchase price, citing ongoing negotiations, and said the money used to buy the center will come from funds approved in the fiscal year 2014 capital budget.

Samuel said he has been following the county's plans.

"It would be great if they did (redevelop)," he said. "A lot needs to be done, and the county is capable of doing it."

Brian Jung, owner of Long Reach Beauty Supply, agrees that something needs to happen, but said he is nervous about the uncertainty of the change.

"They don't know if they are going to knock everything down. It scares me a little bit," he said. "I hope for the best for everyone."

Thompson said a redevelopment plan will involve community input.

"The planning process, the redevelopment is going to be community based," Thompson said. "It's a pretty complicated scenario. It's not the type of thing where we say, 'Here, we have it.' There will be back-and-forth and some figuring that out. Then we will come forward with a consensus plan and re-create the energy the center once enjoyed."

Thompson said the redevelopment plan has to be vetted and approved by the council before it can be carried out.

The passage of the law, which declares the area "an urban renewal zone," is required for the county to purchase the property, because county code prohibits the government from owning and operating a commercial operation within its jurisdiction.

At the March 3 meeting, the council passed the bill, 4-1, with Greg Fox, the lone Republican on the council, voting against it.

County council member Calvin Ball, who represents Long Reach and has been a proponent of the plan since it was announced, called the vote a "bold move."

"I know that this is a new law in that we haven't used it before. I know that it's uncomfortable for some folks," Ball said. "However, I think it's vital for the revitalization of the Long Reach Village Center and Long Reach."

Although all four council Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, there are concerns.

Council members Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa said "it breaks (their) heart(s)" to call an area of Columbia a blight zone, but that it is necessary to achieve revitalization.

"I know that the Long Reach Village Center needs our help," Sigaty said.

Terrasa said: "Long Reach is a community in need, there's no question about that. It's really, really declined and we need to do something."

Among Fox's concerns are purchase price, terms of which have not been disclosed, and setting a bad precedent.

"I'm also concerned not just about what that says but also about what that potentially does to property owners in this area," Fox said. "There's also other areas of the county where things need to be addressed, including other village centers and Route 1."

Council member Courtney Watson said "there are legitimate positions on both sides of this issue," but supported the move.

"While I understand the arguments on either side of this issue, we have to use every tool that we have," Watson said. "Even though we are one of the wealthiest counties in the country, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking everyone in this county is wealthy. And we need to be ready to step up wherever people need help."

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