Like a lot of folks around here, I'm excited — and more than a little relieved — that the southern gateway to our river city has been richly enhanced by the addition of the smart and sparkling Towne Centre at Laurel.

Not only does it make an impressive footprint, it sends a message that the jewel of the Patuxent has landed in the starting lineup in the retail big-leagues. It's the bright culmination of a wait that began in 2006 when the Laurel Mall, notwithstanding its spiffy Italian marble floor, began to flat line. Guess it's true: for everything, a season.

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While I'm not a regular at Old Navy or Burlington, I'm inspired by the stew of new and creative eateries. You want sushi, craft beer, Starbucks, steaks and barbecue? How about an urgent care place in case of indigestion afterward? It's all here — and that's only the beginning.

Following on the heels of BRAC, which ended in 2011 and broughtabout 6,000 new jobs toFort Meade, more new jobs are anticipated, said Raj Kudchadkar, director of special projects for Howard County. Over the next five years, he predicted, around 3,000 new positions, most of them civilian,will be added at the Army installation and NSA. On top of that figure, he said, another 7,000 positions are scheduled to be made available, bringing the total to approximately 10,000

With more people expected to settle near Laurel, , the center's developers, Greenberg Gibbons, know what they're doing. "What we've created," noted Tom Fitzpatrick, president of the firm during the grand opening last fall, "is so much more current with what people want today."

Want to take the pulse of the new development? All you have to do is stop by the cozy, but temporary Laurel Library on Sandy Spring Road. The friendly staff can speak volumes about the place, meditations ripped straight from the pages of their minds.

Like any librarian worth her knowledge of the iconic card catalog (is that still a thing?), Lex Cole pondered the question. In a nutshell, Cole said she likes Harris Teeter, Panera and Noodles and Company. Recalling the original mall, she said she misses stores like Macy's, and would like to see two more anchor stores, maybe another clothing store. Overall, she's thrilled, adding that watching that space go to seed brought no joy. "It was so dead for so many years. I remember as a child, it was packed with stores."

Standing nearby, Martin Seeboth was singing the praises of Mission BBQ. You can't miss it. With a giant Army vehicle parked in front, it looks like a satellite campus of Fort Meade. "The macaroni and cheese," Seeboth weighed in, "is to die for. As for the Outback Steak House, it's all thumbs up. "It's fine. Not overwhelming." Addressing the consumers who contend the center is light on retail, Seeboth has an idea. "I'd rather have the good restaurants."

Then there's Jan Markiewicz. She, too, thinks the center is a fabulous addition to the terrain, but wonders about one thing: "There do seem to be a lot of restaurants. I'm not sure if there are more restaurants than stores. I want a Trader Joe's." Markiewicz makes a good point. Did you know the average household income within a seven-mile radius of Laurel is over $95,000? I didn't.

The day before I visited the library, I quizzed my backup generator son, Brent Debnam, about the Regal Cinema 12. Brent, a student at Bowie State, made it seem that this was, in fact, the Taj Mahal of cinemas, akin to white tablecloth dining in a dark auditorium and sensory overload. "It's very relaxing," said Brent, who uses a wheelchair. "It's comfortable stadium seating and there's a wide range of films." He also appreciates the venue is accessible to wheelchairs. As for the mix of businesses beyond the silver screen, Brent, true to his essence, didn't mince words. "Adding more retail," he said, "would help balance out the amount of revenue that is being placed at the mall."

As I was leaving the library, in a splendid moment of serendipity, I encountered my longtime chum, Ruth Walls, and daughter Wrenn Skidmore. As usual, the duo didn't seem to be engaged in any visibly productive activity, save walking the dog, which is completely overrated. So I had to pose the same question to them that I did to the hard-working tome lovers inside: What do you think about the new mall?

"It gives us more lunch options," opined Skidmore, who works at First Generation College Bound next door to the library. "A lot of our students are employed over there."

Her mom, always the one to see life through an artist's lens, said she is thrilled Laurel has moved a notch upward into the chic, sophisticated realm. "We will have restaurants that have seating outdoors," she enthused. "It has a European flair." Then, pausing, she attached a final thought. "We have it now. At Harris Teeter. That's upscale!"

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