Some of the grandest economic development plans unveiled in Baltimore County over the past year -- the $16 million Time Warner Inc. distribution center, the Honeygo residential project, the recently announced "Avenue at White Marsh" entertainment-retail complex -- share a common address: White Marsh.
It's a sign that county officials and development interests have at last realized that White Marsh is Baltimore County's best hope to stanch the demographic bleeding it has suffered the past decade. All those young, dual-income families who moved to Harford and Carroll counties and southern Pennsylvania rather than Baltimore County? By and large, they were middle-income households who couldn't afford the larger, pricier homes in the valleys or Owings Mills, but who bypassed affordable White Marsh because they couldn't find what they liked -- or couldn't find White Marsh period.
True, White Marsh has grown. In fact, that side of the county witnessed more housing turnover than any other area since 1985. Still, planners acknowledge that White Marsh's design 20 years ago left something to be desired. Even new County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III acknowledged in his inauguration speech that the county's out-migration has been a problem of livability, not affordability.
With that in mind, the plan by Nottingham Properties Inc. to build a $45 million family entertainment and retail complex seems a perfect fit for the area. Nottingham wants to model its project after the Reston Town Center, a spectacular project in that planned community in Northern Virginia that might best be described as Disney World's Main Street minus Mickey Mouse and the Victoriana. With outdoor fountains and promenades, the town square concept attempts to re-create a bite-sized, sanitized piece of downtown out in the 'burbs. The project aims to fuse the best of two concepts: the pedestrian bustle of a city with the controls of a suburban mall. Nottingham is also planning a 14-screen movie theater, which should do well because the suburban corridor that runs north into Harford County is under-served by movie houses now.
County residents and merchants who wonder whether the area can support more business should be reminded of the restaurateurs in Baltimore's Little Italy who feared the arrival of Harborplace -- and came to love it. Baltimore countians should take this economic news as a compliment: Business wants to be where the consumers and workers are. And people want to be where goods and services and jobs are. It's a productive relationship without which a jurisdiction withers.