Howard County's first Whole Foods Market opened in downtown Columbia Wednesday to a large number of eager shoppers -- an event that local officials called a watershed moment in the revitalization of Columbia's Town Center.
"This is more than just a grocery store, this is a critical piece in the revitalization of downtown Columbia," County Executive Ken Ulman said outside the store.
"To see this open, to see hundreds of people walking in with big smiles on their face; it is really gratifying to know we are making a lot of progress in Howard County and here in downtown Columbia."
The approximately 50,000 square-foot lakefront grocery store opened inside the former Rouse Company building -- a downtown landmark designed by architect Frank Gehry -- just before 9 a.m. The opening was marked with a bread-breaking ceremony hosted by Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic President Scott Allshouse.
"I can't tell you how happy we are to be a part of the Columbia community and how excited we are to open a store here," Allshouse said, addressing a crowd of hundreds before opening the doors.
Whole Foods is known for its commitment to delivering organic and healthy options -- all products are free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives and hydrogenated oils -- to consumers in a shopper-friendly setting.
The Columbia location has a full-service seafood section, butcher, bakery, cheese bar, produce department and body care area. It also has a small food court with indoor and outdoor seating that includes a vegetarian diner, a Peruvian chicken place, a smokehouse, a deli and an Asian-infused place.
Svetlana Piskounova, the store's team leader, said the response from shoppers was resounding.
"It's been a great response," she said. "We've had people waiting in line since 6 a.m. to get in. It's been awesome. We can't wish for anything more."
Min Chung, 38, of Ellicott City, was part of the crowd. She said she is a regular Whole Foods customer who frequents the location in Baltimore's Harbor East neighborhood, which is where she works, once a week. Now she will be coming to Columbia.
"I love Whole Foods," she said. "I like their selection. They are very selective about what they put on their shelves, so it makes it easier for me to shop."
Columbia resident Rebecca Severt, 34, said she just moved to Columbia from Arlington, Va., last year. She said she went to the Whole Foods in Arlington.
"We are big fans, so we are excited to see it open here," she said.
John DeWolf, senior vice president for the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the building and is the principal land owner in downtown, said it was "very satisfying" to see Whole Foods open after years of planning.
“Today is a great day," DeWolf said in a statement. "Whole Foods is a great addition to Columbia, and we couldn’t be more pleased to officially welcome them.”
DeWolf pointed out that another key element was restoring the Rouse building, which was a $25 million renovation project. In addition to Whole Foods, the building will house a wellness retreat operated by the Columbia Association called Haven on the Lake. The retreat is expected to open in December.
Allshouse praised the building and said that the Columbia Whole Foods is "one of the 10 prettiest stores in the company."
Ulman added: "If we are going to have a Whole Foods in Howard County, I can’t think of a better place to have it."
Randy Severt, a 36-year resident of Columbia who attended the opening as a shoppper, said adding a Whole Foods puts Columba on the map.
"It's wonderful," she said. "I feel like we've arrived."
The 61-year-old said she is excited for future downtown projects, which include apartments, retail and cultural venues.
"Columbia is a place that never really had a downtown," she said. "We had Merriweather Post, or you could go to the mall [Mall in Columbia], but that was really all we had. I am looking forward to the revitalization and for it to become a real community."