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Howard planning director elaborates on Oakland Mills grant proposal

Howard planning director elaborates on Oakland Mills grant proposal
Valdis Lazdins, Howard County's new director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. (Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A proposed $50,000 grant aimed at assisting revitalization efforts in Columbia's village of Oakland Mills would be spent on a market study that would look at a variety of concepts for the community center, according to Howard County planning and zoning department head Valdis Lazdins.

Lazdins gave more details about the grant, proposed earlier this month by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, at a County Council work session on Monday.

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While some community leaders and local sports teams have advocated building an athletic complex with a 50-meter pool, hockey rink and indoor track in the village center, Lazdins said the market study would be "broader based" and would look at commercial and residential options, as well.

"The idea would be to have this study comprehensively rather than just focusing on an ice rink," he said. "We want to find a perspective that is grounded in reality rather than just another vision for the village center."

The grant is one of two funding proposals from the Kittleman administration this month, after a late boost in last fiscal year's revenues brought in $4 million more than expected. The other proposal, $290,000 to the Community Action Council, would provide matching funds for a state grant to pay for a new food bank headquarters.

Columbia Association has also pledged $25,000 in funds from this fiscal year to help pay for a market study in Oakland Mills.

"The goal in our minds is revitalization and viability of the community overall," said Jane Dembner, CA's director of planning and community affairs.

A recent market study of Columbia's village centers found Oakland Mills needs to look for another anchor business for the village as the grocery store market becomes increasingly competitive, she added.

Councilmembers had questions about the timing and scope of the proposed study.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican from Fulton, asked whether village center property owners would be involved in the study. New York-based Cedar Realty Trust owns much of the village center, including the grocery store.

Lazdins said reaching out to property owners would be a "critical element upfront."

He said he expected more details of the study to be worked out once funding is in place: "Based on input from council, from CA, [we would] actually develop a [request for proposals] for some of the details we would want to get out of this study."

Lazdins estimated the entire process would take between six and nine months, with a report released sometime in late spring or summer of next year.

Council Chairwoman May Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said the proposal made her "a little nervous," and pointed out that there have been other market studies of Columbia in recent years. An August 2014 study of eight village centers commissioned by CA, the Howard County Economic Development Authority and the county's planning and zoning department recommended a casual dining restaurant, catering/party supply store, 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of office space, a bike rental and repair shop and one or two new family-style restaurants for the Oakland Mills shopping center.

"My expectation is if we're going to spend this money, I'd like to see an outcome that's actually usable, reality-based rather than desire-based," Sigaty said.

Diane Wilson, Kittleman's chief of staff, said the county executive's hope was to create "an action plan, not just a plan to sit on a shelf.

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"The Oakland Mills community came to the county executive and said we need help, our community is in distress, our village center is not thriving," she said. "They've done a lot of work and come up with a sports destination plan that they'd like to see implemented. It became clear community engagement was necessary."

Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat who represents Oakland Mills in his east Columbia district, said he wants to gather community input on the proposed grant before the council votes Monday on whether to approve it.

"I want to make sure we don't keep talking about what the community wants without the community being fully engaged," he said.

An earlier version of this story said a study of village centers recommended finding a second anchor for the Oakland Mills Village Center. In fact, the study suggests finding a new anchor for the village center as the grocery store market becomes increasingly competitive. 

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