Study reveals economic details, forecast of Columbia's village centers

They say the devil is in the details.

That, perhaps, is why a team of consultants hired to research the state of key economic areas in Columbia -- most notably eight of the nine village centers -- spent nearly two hours Wednesday evening presenting detailed findings from the four-month long study to approximately 75 people inside the Bain Center in Columbia. 

The findings, broken down by area and type of use [office, retail, industrial, etc.], expound in detail about the current and past economic conditions, future growth patterns and market opportunities for eight of the nine centers, Wilde Lake was excluded, and the booming big box retail corridor along Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin Road in East Columbia, referred to in the study as "GEDs." 

The report serves as a precursor to a May 29 meeting, where possible future uses for the studied areas will be proffered by the consultants, who were hired by the Columbia Association, Howard County government and the Howard County Economic Development Authority to conduct the study. 

"It was much more detail-oriented," said Jane Dembner, CA's director of Community Building & Open Space Bureau, of the presentation, which is the third in a series of four on the study. 

"Today was really more specific about each village and what is the market for those, and how did we get there," she said. 

Dembner said a key takeaway from the meeting was the revelation that -- excluding the village of Long Reach, which has a 65 percent vancancy rate and was recently declared a "blight zone" by the county government, which plans to purchase and redevelop the property -- the village centers have a vacancy rate of three percent.

"That's actually a great finding, it shows there's not distress," she said. 

Dembner said the finding helps rebuke the theory posited by some that the village centers, once the prime destination for Columbia shoppers, are dying. Coupled with other findings about the surrounding marketplace, specifically the boon of big box retailers -- like Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club -- and specialty grocers -- like Wegmans, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods -- Dembner said the study shows a shift in the type of retailers occupying the spaces in the center. 

"What's different is the kinds of stores for certain villages," Dembner said. "You don't have as many people shopping there because of competition, so you won't have as many of the stores you wish you would have."

While some of the findings rebuked some public conjecture, others confirmed it. The most prominent being the idea that the influx of grocers and other retailers along Snowden River Parkway, Dobbin Road and Gateway Overlook has challenged the traditional grocery store model deployed by the nearby village centers in Owen Brown, Long Reach and Oakland Mills.

According to the study, Long Reach is located within a five minute drive of five grocers and a 10 minute drive of 14 grocers. Owen Brown is within a five minute drive of four grocers and a 10 minute drive of 12 grocers, while Oakland Mills is located within a five minute drive of three grocers and a 10 minute drive of 15 grocers. 

"That's a highly intensive supermarket competitive picture, it's a lot of trade area overlap," said Patti Folan, a consultant on the study. "That's something that raises some red flags, that these three village centers in particular are stressed by the competitive market."

Tom Moriarity, the lead consultant on the project, said, given the competition, there is no room for more grocery stores in Columbia's village centers.

"I don't think that will come as a surprise," he said. "Can you keep your grocery stores? Yes, we think those are going to remain fairly stable, but there are stresses."

Now, the consultants' attention turns toward the future. While no concrete recommendations for future uses were revealed Wednesday, the consultants hinted at a few possible scenarios, including reinforcing the idea of adding more restaurants to the village centers. 

"Food and beverage, we talked last time, is an opportunity," said Moriarity. "We are really talking about two to three restaurants supportable today in most of the village centers."

The consultants also talked about adding small office tenants, like dentists and other similar businesses, to the village centers.  

Check back for updates. 

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