Less than a month after the Howard County Council introduced a bill intended to launch "phase one" of a revitalization project for Columbia's Long Reach Village Center, a key part of the plan has hit a wall.
The aging shopping center, which has struggled with high vacancy rates, has been slated for renovation since last year, when the council declared it a blight zone and the county purchased most of its real estate for $5 million. Although no formal revitalization plans have been announced, former County Executive Ken Ulman favored transforming the village center into a community arts hub.
Celebration Church – a congregation located in the village – has had its eyes on the former site of a Safeway grocery store that provided an anchor for the center before it closed in 2011. Church leaders have said they hope to move into the larger space to accommodate Celebration's expanding congregation.
This week, Celebration Church's pastor, the Rev. Robbie Davis, said the church's plans to buy the 55,000-square-foot building appeared to be stalled after negotiations with the county over parking failed to reach a resolution.
The county had asked Celebration Church to pay $1 million for non-exclusive parking rights in the village center, according to Davis, who said the price tag "came as a shock" to the church.
"We didn't think it would be a good stewardship of the resources of the church to move forward with that," he said.
Parking was the final piece that needed to fall into place before Celebration Church could move forward with purchasing the Safeway building for $2.5 million, according to Davis. Earlier this month, Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat whose district includes Long Reach, introduced a resolution that would have transferred 201 parking spaces in the village center to the building's owner.
But at the council's public hearing on Jan. 20, Ball withdrew the legislation.
"This resolution would have allowed the county executive to work with current or future owners of the Safeway site. It does not appear as though that conversation would any longer be viable, so I don't think this legislation is necessary," Ball said at the hearing.
Davis said county officials weren't receptive to negotiating the price of the parking spots. "They held to their guns as far as the million-dollar easement," he said.
Without an agreement on parking, the window of opportunity for the church to buy the Safeway property passed in mid-January. The contract of sale for the Long Reach Village Center, which the county signed when it bought the majority of the center in October, gave Celebration Church 120 days from the deal's closing date to purchase the former store.
Now that those four months are up, the county is required to buy the building within a month, according to the terms of the contract.
In a statement, County Executive Allan Kittleman confirmed that the county plans to purchase the Safeway site.
"We worked collaboratively with Celebration Church since Day 1 of my administration to find a creative solution; however, it did not appear that there was a viable option for financing available to the church," Kittleman said. "As stipulated by the agreement, the county will purchase the property by Feb. 20. Over the next several weeks, I will be working with county staff to engage community stakeholders to help us develop a long-term economic development plan that will revitalize this aging village center."
Davis, however, said the church's financing was "ready to go."
"Our financing is in place, the resources are in place," he said. "Everything is ready to move."
County Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican from Fulton who had been critical of Ball's parking transfer legislation because he thought it limited the possibilities for the village center's revitalization, said he thought taking a step back and considering a wider range of options for the site was a good step.
"I think starting with a blank slate that is not encumbered really provides more opportunities to the Village of Long Reach," Fox said. "My position is to make sure that there is open dialogue and we do the best for both the Village of Long Reach and the citizens of Howard County as a whole in determining how to redevelop."
Davis hopes future plans for the village center involve Celebration Church, which has been in Long Reach for four decades, growing from a congregation of just about a dozen people to more than 3,000. The church now holds four Sunday services, including one in Spanish, and runs a school for children ages 3 through sixth-grade.
"Spiritually, we see ourselves as responsible for the village of Long Reach," Davis said. If the church is unable to relocate to the Safeway site, he said it's likely the congregation would continue to keep its headquarters in the village center.
"We are exploring our options as we speak," he said. "Our desire is to stay in the village of Long Reach, but of course we're open to whatever doors may open in Columbia or Howard County."
Davis said he's optimistic the church will find a solution "very soon.
"We're disappointed at what's taken place," he said, "but we are confident that a door is going to open, an opportunity is going to arise for the church to expand."