The consultants hired to study the economic climate and potential of key locations in Columbia, including eight of the nine village centers, presented recommendations at a public meeting last week.
The recommendations include: creation of a program to help retain and recruit small retail tenants, land swaps to improve village center layouts, a comprehensive review of covenants on Columbia properties, and a master database plan for the booming big box retail corridor along Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin Road in East Columbia, referred to in the study as “GEDs.”
The study was commissioned last fall by the Columbia Association in partnership with Howard County government’s Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
The goal is to examine the economic conditions and develop a five-year forecast of eight of Columbia's nine village centers – Wilde Lake was excluded because it is undergoing a comprehensive renovation – and GEDs.
A key question was whether the traditional grocery-anchored model the village centers were built around is still viable. The answer seems to depend to some extent on the situation, but with grocers such as Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, and Costco, the model is being challenged.
Tom Moriarity, the lead consultant for the study, said the model should be preserved where it can be, but that owners should “be prepared to modify as required” to respond to “increasing competition.”
Possible alternatives include using the space for residential, libraries and government offices, churches, day care centers or recreational facilities.
Jane Dembner, director of Community Building & Open Space Bureau for the Columbia Association and point person for the study, said confirmation that the grocer market has challenged the centers was a big takeaway.
Another for Dembner was that the study showed the planned concept for Columbia is working.
“There is this balance,” Dembner said.
Dembner also touted the recruitment program, which she said could be a boon to local and independently owned niche retailers. The initiative would be responsible for coordinating with village center owners and brokers to find potential tenants for vacancies. The idea is that the program would deliver tenants that both residents and owners would approve.
The program also could provide other assistance to existing tenants through business counseling and a loan program.
“It’s about partnering up,” Dembner said.
The program would likely be operated by the Economic Development Authority, whose mission is to aid local businesses. Larry Twele, the CEO of EDA, said the organization is already employing some retail retention strategies, and that the study gives them the teeth to expand those efforts.
“They are suggesting a more dedicated effort put forth to it as it relates to the village centers,” Twele said. “It is something we have been watching and directing more resources to, so it is affirming to know we are heading in the right direction.”
Twele said other recommendations also are in sync with strategies the EDA is employing.
“It was nice to see that some of the recommendations that are in the report are in line with our efforts here,” he said.
Twele added that the community input and interest during the study was encouraging.
“That really was an important piece of it,” he said. “We were very pleased to see such a positive turnout.”
One out-of-the-box solution proposed by lead consultant Tom Moriarity was for stakeholders to consider property or space “swaps,” which he said could help make the village center layouts less clumsy.
Regarding the future of GEDs, the study presented no clear answer. Moriarity said the future of the areas “is a policy and planning issue,” and suggested that a comprehensive database of the area be created.
Moriarity also suggested the covenants that bind some of Columbia’s properties be reviewed because they can be a hindrance on redevelopment.
The recommendations presented are non-binding since all but one of the areas, the village of Long Reach, are privately owned.
Of the nine village centers, six are owned by Kimco Realty Corp., the largest operator of shopping centers in North America. The three not owned by Kimco are Oakland Mills, owned by Cedar Realty Trust; Owen Brown, owned by GFS Realty; and Long Reach, which was recently declared a blight zone and purchased by the county government.
David Bujnicki, a spokesman for Kimco, said the company will not discuss the report because they “have not had the opportunity to discuss internally any conclusions or recommendations that may have been included.”
The May 29 meeting was the last public presentation on the study, which began in fall 2013. A final report, which will have more specific recommendations, will be published this summer.
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