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Wawa's Dilemma in Columbia HOWARD COUNTY


You can count each summer on the roses budding, the pools opening and, in the Columbia village of Hickory Ridge, the local Wawa becoming a night-time hangout for youths.

In past years, the problems at the convenience store were mostly of the nuisance variety: an occasional fight, some shoplifting, an elderly person would feel menaced by the boisterous youths who congregate there. But the incidents tended not to be too serious. Cooler weather would arrive and the young crowds would disappear.

But this summer two events left little doubt about the seriousness of the Wawa problem for Hickory Ridge.

On Aug. 16, one of the store's windows was shattered when several gunshots were fired by someone in a large and unruly crowd standing outside. A week later, police responded to a report of a man with a gun in the store's parking lot and arrested five Anne Arundel County men attempting to drive away. A loaded assault rifle and a baseball bat were found in the car.

Officials of the Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain have responded in a number of ways. Pay phones outside the store, which many residents contend were used to conduct drug transactions, have been removed. A security force that uses only off-duty police officers has been employed on the weekends.

These are all positive steps and should help alleviate the situation. But Wawa officials have steadfastly refused to do the one thing that might bring an end to the recurring problems: Curtailing the store's 24-hour operation. Only one other convenience store in Columbia, a 7-Eleven in Running Brook, is open around the clock. But it is the Wawa that has developed a reputation as a hangout.

Unless the store can take the necessary steps to discourage its use as a late-night summer hangout, it runs the risk of alienating the community that surrounds it. Already, members of the Hickory Ridge Village Board are talking about the possibility of organizing a boycott.

With autumn's arrival, such an organized effort may never materialize. Still, the goodwill of residents is wearing thin and Wawa officials should not be complacent that all will blow over by next spring.

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