Competition looms large for retailers Big shopping projects may create glut, small merchants fear; National chains scoff; County officials also voice worries about shakeout effect


The wave of warehouse-style discount stores that has rocked Columbia retailing in the past several years is about to hit Ellicott City -- and small merchants and county officials are nervous.

Their latest object of concern: Long Gate Center, a $40 million project being developed by Bethesda-based Opus East on 43 acres between U.S. 29 and Routes 103 and 100 and due to open in phases, beginning in October.

Long Gate has signed seven tenants, including a 116,000-square-foot Target discount store and a 15,000-square-foot liquor store.

A gas station and two restaurants also have signed leases with the developer for nearby space.

In Columbia, meanwhile, construction continues on Columbia Crossing, a 440,000- square-foot retail hub that is due to open in stages beginning in October about eight miles from Long Gate and less than a mile from Snowden Square, the county's first mega-shopping center.

And Columbia Crossing, which is filling up much more slowly than Long Gate, is directly across Route 175 from the 283,000-square-foot Dobbin Center, which contains a Kmart and an Upton's, among other stores.

While national retailers insist that the local market can sustain the onslaught of "big box" merchants, the size and abundance of the giant stores trouble some residents, small merchants and county officials.

"I don't see how this area is going to support all of these new stores," said Leroy Lydard, former president of the 100-home Avoca Avenue community, which is southeast of the Long Gate Center site. "I guess this means some of the older stores will have to close now."

Independent merchants in Ellicott City say they fear their customer base will begin crumbling once the new big-box retailers open.

"The bottom line is there is only a certain amount of money people want to spend shopping," said Mike Kornstein, a gift shop owner in Ellicott City's historic district. "The shopping center will be competition to the entire area."

And some county development officials wonder if the huge stores will hurt each other.

"We are concerned about this tremendous upsurge in retail activity because not everyone will survive," said Richard Story, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority. "How many of these centers can the population support?"

But officials at Target -- the Minneapolis-based discount chain that will open stores at both Long Gate and Columbia Crossing -- are convinced that Howard can support a number of giant-sized retailers.

"There's enough population in [Ellicott City and Columbia] to warrant both stores," said Phil Crable, a Target district manager who will oversee the Long Gate store.

Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said that power centers are the "hottest format in retailing."

"Retailers wouldn't build them if people didn't shop there," he said.

Ellicott City, in particular, may become the county's retail haven. In addition to the Long Gate Center, a Wal-Mart store is planned on 22 acres at the northeast corner of U.S. 29 and U.S. 40.

Construction hasn't started, but the company "could break ground any day now," said Michael Antol, a county planner working on the project.

According to the 1990 Census, by year 2000, 61,646 households will be located within a five-mile radius of the Long Gate Center site. In 1995, the average household income was $71,850 in that area, according to the same data.

"Ellicott City is in an excellent location with good road access and a high-density population," said Joseph Rauenhorst, president of Opus East, Long Gate's developer.

"We have more interest [from retailers] than we have space available."

Besides Target, the Long Gate center will feature a Safeway, a Homeplace furnishings store, a Kohl's department store, a Total Beverage liquor store, a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and MJ Designs, Opus East officials said.

An Outback Steak House, a Carraba's Italian Grill restaurant and a Mobil gas station are also leasing 5,000-square-foot lots around the retail complex.

From a leasing standpoint, Long Gate Center appears to be doing better than Columbia Crossing.

Only 56 percent of Columbia Crossing is leased, compared with 96 percent of Long Gate.

In addition to Target, stores that have signed leases with Rouse Co. at Columbia Crossing include Toys 'R' Us, Dick's Clothing & Sporting Goods, and Reading China & More, a household goods store.

"We're not going for speed, but a good mix of stores," said David E. Forester, vice president and senior development director for Rouse. "If any place is saturated, it's Ellicott City with Route 40."

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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