Adversity brings village together Oakland Mills residents unite after closing of Giant store announced


That new feeling in the air in Columbia's Oakland Mills village is more than just the coming of spring -- it's the unfamiliar pulsing of grass-roots activism.

In the weeks since Giant Food Inc. announced it would close the grocery store in the village center, anxious residents of Oakland Mills have linked arms to make sure the village itself doesn't go downhill: Committees and subcommittees have been formed, fliers have been posted, petitions drawn up.

"It's a shame it takes adversity to bring people together," said Hal Kassoff, co-chair of the new Save Our Center committee. "This village has never been as aroused as it is now."

At a village meeting Tuesday night, more than 230 residents met with Giant and Rouse Co. officials and local politicians -- including County Executive Charles I. Ecker and state Sen. Martin G. Madden -- at the Other Barn in the village center.

But the impassioned crowd, the biggest gathering in the village in recent memory, did little more than vent emotions and vow to take action.

Still, the activism has brought a few small victories, announced at the meeting:

Starting Monday, prompted by concern that disabled residents and those without cars soon will have no place to buy food, Howard Area Transit Service buses that go through Oakland Mills will begin stopping at the Giant in Owen Brown Village Center, officials said.

At the urging of the village board, representatives from the state Department of Business and Economic Development have visited the Oakland Mills center and plan to help with the revitalization, said Vernon Thompson of the department.

The Rouse Co. is considering massive renovations at the village center, including expansion of the current Giant space, said Wayne A. Christmann of Rouse.

"If we bring another grocer into a 20- or 25,000-square-feet space, I'd be willing to bet we'd be having the same conversation in three or four years," Christmann said at the meeting, referring to the small size of the current supermarket space. "That's not what we want. We want to make changes that will take Oakland Mills into the 21st century."

For weeks, residents pressed Giant to extend its lease through the end of the year to allow Rouse more time to find a new tenant. But Giant plans to leave after June 28, said Barry F. Scher, a Giant spokesman.

"We asked ourselves what would happen if we stayed open another three or six months," Scher said. "What would it prove?

"We have already proved our commitment to the community and to the county," he said, citing Giant's efforts to make the Oakland Mills store financially viable -- by closing its salad bar and deli last year -- and pointing to the opening tomorrow of a new store in Elkridge.

But some residents and officials did not agree.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard Democrat, received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd when he said, "To Giant, I would say, we were there for you 25 years ago. We were the generation that stood by you when you built Columbia. Look around you. We were here then -- we want you to be here for us now."

Save Our Center volunteers have begun meeting Wednesday evenings at The Last Chance restaurant in Oakland Mills.

Dozens of members of subcommittees plan to contact potential grocery store tenants, organize support for other village center merchants and devise long-range plans for other parts of the center.

Some residents plan to keep in touch with representatives from Columbia's older villages: Wilde Lake, Long Reach and Harper's Choice. These villages have faced similar crises in recent years as village center buildings deteriorated and new area mega-shopping centers -- many built by Rouse -- drew customers away.

In Oakland Mills, a new community outreach subcommittee wants to have at least one representative on each street in the village to spread information. Volunteers will sign up residents in the village center on weekends through the end of the month, said Donna Mack, head of the group.

Members of each subcommittee said they hope the flurry of activity continues even if a solution is found to the current situation.

"We are intending for the block captain positions to be ongoing," Mack said.

Some residents pointed to other problems facing the village -- including the fate of the undeveloped 300-acre Smith farm in the center of Oakland Mills and lagging student performance at some schools.

They said they hope ultimately to direct the current wave of energy to those issues.

"I hope when we're done venting and directing our energy where it should be, I hope we can turn our attention to the other things going on in Oakland Mills," said Chuck Scudder, a resident of the Talbot Springs neighborhood. "I just hope this is the start of something, a little movement."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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