Howard County government announced plans Tuesday night to purchase and redevelop a majority of the Long Reach Village Center in Columbia.
The county is in negotiations with owner and landlord Long Reach Village Associates LLC, a corporation affiliated with Pikesville-based America's Realty, to purchase the majority of its holdings in the center. It includes everything but the space formerly occupied by Safeway, Richburn Discount Liquors, the Exxon Station and Deli Town, according to Mark Thompson, county director of downtown redevelopment.
The plans were announced at a Jan. 7 meeting of the Long Reach Village Board. It was also announced that Celebration Church plans to move into the vacant 55,000 square feet Safeway space, which is still leased to Safeway and owned by Long Reach Village Associates.
The space was most recently occupied by the Family Market, which sublet from Safeway and was evicted for not paying rent in August.
"I am just so enthusiastically excited about what we are building on today," said Calvin Ball, county council member who represents Long Reach.
Thompson said the plans came together in the last 90 days after the current owner approached the county about a purchase.
"It’s a great opportunity," Thompson said. "There are always great desires, ideas and plans and sometimes it takes a long time to get the opportunity (to do those things). We have a chance to seize that opportunity."
A representative of America's Realty at the meeting declined to comment.
Although the county has entered into negotiations with Long Reach Village Associates, no sale can be finalized without the passage of legislation by the county council. Thompson said the county government can't own commercial property within the county limits unless it plans to redevelop the property.
In order to make a purchase, legislation designating the center as a redevelopment area needs to be passed by the council. Thompson estimates legislation could be introduced in February and passed as early as March.
Thompson would not reveal a potential cost of the purchase, but said he is confident a deal will get done.
Specific redevelopment plans have not been formulated, according to Thompson, who said the county wants to look to the residents and the village master plan for guidance.
"What we are looking to do is engage the community in a redevelopment process," he said.
Thompson added that the purchase is "fortuitous" because it coincides with an economic study of the village centers commissioned by the Columbia Association, the county government and Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Results of the study, which was launched in December, are expected to be presented in April.
"I think its going to be very important," Thompson said of the study. "They have acquired top-notch retail experts so it's going to be very helpful for us moving forward."
Thompson said the county is suggesting relocating the Howard County Arts Council from Ellicott City to the center, pairing it with the Columbia Arts Center, owned by CA, which is located there.
"When this opportunity was presented to us, I have to say I was very excited about it," said Coleen West, executive director of the Arts Council. "I can imagine the kind of synergy we can create, and I look forward to exploring the possibilities and seeing how we can make it work."
Pastor Robbie Davis of Celebration Church, said the organization is excited about "being a part of the revitalization" of the village center.
Preliminary plans were generally well received by members of the board and the room full of residents, business owners and stakeholders in attendance at the meeting Tuesday.
"We really welcome this initiative, I think it's a very positive step," said said Karen Hitcho, village board chair.
Hitcho was one of many residents who criticized the state of the center.
"I don’t think it's any news that our center has been in decline, particularly since the new owners took over," she said. "They seem either unable or unwilling to reverse that decline. It's been a big concern for us."
Rhodney Lloyd, owner of Chick N' Friends, a restaurant and catering business in the center, said his business has been struggling.
"We have been bleeding for two years and now we are hemorrhaging," said Lloyd, who opened his store at the center nine years ago.
"People do not come to Chick N' Friends because they don’t come to the village center."
Resident Michael Johnson, who said he has lived in Long Reach since 1992, said the decline of the village center is not indicative of the community.
"I’ve witnessed the slide of the village center. I would not send my wife here at night. I would not send my daughter here at night, and that’s not consistent with the Long Reach I live in," he said.