The Rouse Co. says the expected opening of a Mexican restaurant and cantina this summer will be a linchpin in the revitalization of the Harper's Choice Village Center, which has been in decline in recent years.
"It's an extreme boost for the center," Jody Clark, a Rouse vice president, said of Gringada Mexican Restaurant, a Beltsville operation that recently agreed to a lease. "Our other locations have pubs. They stimulate traffic."
But Harper's Choice village board members and residents say it will take more than a Mexican restaurant to enliven the 23-year-old village center, Columbia's third-oldest. Even better would be the replacement of the Valu Food grocery store with another food market and the establishment of a post office branch, they say.
"Replacing Valu Food is the key to the whole thing," said William McKinstray, village board vice chairman. "If you don't have a good grocery store, people aren't going to be bothered."
The village board and residents complain that the village center has become an unattractive place with vacant storefronts, a dingy appearance, inadequate lighting and parking, crime and loitering.
As recently as last week, residents grilled Rouse officials at a community meeting about what the developer is doing to improve the center.
Columbia resident Toba Barth noted that Rouse has revitalized decaying areas of major cities, such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but seems to be having trouble keeping up some areas of Columbia, the new town it created.
"The shoemaker's children are going barefoot in the shoemaker's backyard," said Ms. Barth, urging the developer to demonstrate the creativity for which it is known.
The village center -- which has an enclosed, courtyard design that even Rouse officials acknowledge is out of step with retail trends -- continues to lose business to newer village centers with larger grocery stores, board members and residents say.
Harper's Choice resident Mary Jane Mulligan told Rouse officials last week that she rarely shops at the center in her village. "I'm really concerned which direction we're going here," she said. "Are we going down or toward improvement?"
Ms. Clark, who oversees village centers for Rouse, responded that the company is working on a multifaceted approach to breathe new life into the center, including improvements in lighting, security and aesthetics.
"We have target dates for pieces of a puzzle that blend into an overall revitalization," she said. Finding a replacement for Valu Food is part of that puzzle. Valu Food's president, Louis Denrich, has said a planned rent increase will force the Baltimore-based chain to leave the center for financial reasons.
Ms. Clark said Rouse is negotiating with grocery chains to replace Valu Food, but declined to name them. The grocery store space in the village center may be enlarged and redesigned for a new tenant, she added.
The new Mexican resident is another sign of improvement, Rouse officials say.
Michael Houck, president of Hermanos Inc., a family-run Mexican restaurant business, said he is familiar with the problems at the fTC Harper's Choice center but is impressed with Columbia and believes the location has "a lot of potential."
"Going in, we knew businesses have failed here," said Mr. Houck, whose Gringada restaurant will fill spaces vacated by an Italian restaurant and a seafood market. "We wanted to give it our best shot. We think we can do well. We're going to do the best we can to make it a nice center."
Village board members and Rouse officials also hope a full-service post office branch can be opened at the center to create more foot traffic for merchants.
To demonstrate support for that idea, village officials collected nearly 1,000 signatures from residents on a petition sent to Columbia's postmaster and forwarded to the U.S. Postal Service's regional office in Baltimore.
"There's no reason this isn't going to be a reality," said Darlind Davis, village board chairwoman, about the drive for a post office.