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Industrial grave to shoppers' heaven


For many years, Columbia's developers have sat on the sidelines and watched as they lost business to retail centers in Laurel, Catonsville and Glen Burnie.

Market research showed Columbia's residents traveling to these far-flung places in search of bargains. Not in the habit of creating business to compete with its Columbia Mall, the Rouse Co. nonetheless was losing out on a lucrative market phenomenon -- the rise of discount centers and warehouse stores.

No longer.

The Rouse Co. is now poised as a contender in this new venue, with a major discount center in Howard County bounded by Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin Road. The latest powerhouse to land in this area has been the much-heralded BJ's Wholesale Club, to be followed by a much larger Hechinger Home Project Center.

But the move in this direction began earlier, with F&M; toiletries and Ross discount clothing store opening two years ago off Dobbin Road. Atlanta-based Uptons discount department store is slated to open in Dobbin Center later this year.

The market research went much deeper than the Rouse Co.'s studies. Officials at BJ's confided that they studied local culinary taste to determine what to stock in the store. Their findings prompted them to include Kosher foods for a growing Jewish community, as well as crab-flavored potato chips, Old Bay seasoning and Esskay "Oriole" hot dogs for true-blue Marylanders.

But this is more than merely new consumer convenience for residents of the Columbia area. The Snowden River Parkway project alone adds 250,000 square feet of retail space worth about $40 million -- taxable property at a time that Howard County sorely needs it. The number of jobs has not been calculated, but undoubtedly will be in the hundreds -- more taxable income and beneficial economic ripples.

The Rouse Co.'s strategic moves have created a retailing jewel from what was a very rough diamond. The space that BJ's and Hechinger occupies was once the home of General Electric, which pulled out several years ago. Even though GE's closing cost about 900 jobs, Howard County had already begun to shift toward an economy based on services and technology. In fact, )) the transformation of this site from hopeless to hopeful is yet another strong sign of the bright potential of the Howard County Community.

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