Long Reach village officials and merchants say they want improvements to make their partly vacant, 20-year-old village center more competitive with the newer Columbia village centers and strip shopping plazas nearby.
Although some cosmetic and structural improvements have been made recently, an official from Columbia Management Inc., which manages the Long Reach center and other Columbia commercial developments, said other upgrades hinge on negotiations to expand the center's Safeway anchor store.
Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Long Reach village board chairwoman, said those deliberations have been under way since she joined the board four years ago.
"It's been a long, hard process. I don't think [Columbia Management] pays much attention to the east side, older areas," Ms. Januszkiewicz said. "We hear a lot of promises and expectations but don't see a lot of action."
The shopping center's management remains committed to the Long Reach center and is working to make many of the improvements urged by residents, said Frederick Paine, Columbia Management's general manager of Columbia village centers.
"We recognize that the market is good there. There's a lot of expansion," said Mr. Paine, citing the potential for new customers from development of the Kendall Ridge neighborhood and other nearby residential communities.
Columbia Management recently has replaced crumbling concrete, built handicapped-access curb cuts, repainted signs and trimmed trees to let more light reach the parking lot, Mr. Paine said. The management company also monitors the maintenance and landscaping of the Long Reach center, as it does at other village centers.
Ms. Januszkiewicz said those improvements have come only after persistent prodding by the village board. Village officials also warn that the center, which includes community activities buildings, is in danger of losing its place as a community focal point.
Sarah B. Uphouse, Long Reach village administrator, said Long Reach residents no longer identify strongly with their village center, which has offices and retail spaces for an anchor store and 18 shops. Fifteen shop locations are occupied.
"It just needs to be brought into the '90s instead of looking like a leftover from the '70s," she said.
Long Reach officials say they want a more aggressive approach to upgrading the center, especially because the Rouse Co. projects that it will add about 1,000 housing units to Long Reach's Kendall Ridge neighborhood by 1999. Columbia Management is a subsidiary of the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.
"The board feels that if the Rouse Co. is willing to keep making money on the development of the village, in turn they should be willing to upgrade the village center," said Sarah B. Uphouse, Long Reach village administrator.
Long Reach officials and village merchants say the Safeway must be enlarged and modernized to compete with stores attracting customers to newer village centers, such as the Giant Food store in Dorsey's Search.
They also want Columbia Management to improve lighting to combat a perception that the center is not safe.
Merchants also want to see the three vacancies at the center filled, including two that have been unoccupied for several years.
"We would like to have all the stores leased," said Pati Morton, a banking officer at the Bank of Baltimore and president of the center's merchants association.
Mr. Paine noted that Columbia Management is working on a five-year plan to improve lighting at Columbia commercial centers.
The management company also has been working to lease vacant space but is "very particular" about which tenants would be appropriate for the village center, Mr. Paine said.
He declined to elaborate on what improvements depend on Safeway's expansion or on whether it is more difficult to find tenants for the Long Reach center than for newer developments.
Long Reach officials and merchants also say that the center's design -- store entrances face an enclosed courtyard not visible from the parking lot -- might hinder efforts to attract tenants and customers.
The Long Reach Village Center "dates back to the days when we were extremely discreet about any commercial enterprise," Ms. Uphouse said. "It worked at the beginning because there were no other options. Now retailers come in and see other options. They're used to strip centers facing the road."
Mr. Paine said the design can't be changed. "You just have to work with it," he said.