Nominee coming full circle


Gary Lester Rosenbaum is 53, but he looks a good deal younger, and he lacks a speck of gray in his full, dark hair. All that may change soon, though, because he is poised to join the Howard County Planning Board, which has been overwhelmed with profound issues and, as a result, has become a focal point of controversy.

Rosenbaum first laughs off the prospects, but then he acknowledges that he understands what he is getting into.

"I'm used to people complaining," he says.

Rosenbaum has been a professional planner and businessman - two fields in which ruffling feathers is guaranteed.

His nomination to the five-member board will be the subject of public hearings Feb. 21, and confirmation by the County Council could occur March 6.

James N. Robey, county executive, nominated him, although Robey's chief assistant, Herman Charity, handled the search and screening processes.

If confirmed, as expected, he will fill the vacancy created in December when Jennifer R. Terrasa resigned to run for the County Council.

Charity considered several candidates, at least six seriously, before settling on Rosenbaum.

"He's knowledgeable about current issues," Charity says. "And he has the ability to be objective and work in the best interests of the citizens of the county."

Rosenbaum was raised on Long Island in New York, but he has been a Howard County resident for three decades.

He received a bachelor's degree in conservation and resource development from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1974, and a master's degree in regional planning from the University of Michigan two years later.

"I was interested in coastal zone planning - that kind of brought me back to Maryland, looking for positions having to do with the Chesapeake Bay and the [Baltimore] harbor," said the Highland resident.

He worked as a planner for the state for five years, first with the Department of Transportation, then with the Maryland Railroad Administration, specializing in mass transit and light rail station development.

Rosenbaum abandoned planning, though, for a career in retailing.

His father had a chain of shoe stores and his father-in-law was in the catering business in Atlanta. "He was using a lot of disposables at the time," Rosenbaum says of his father-in-law. "He said it might be something you want to look into as a potential retail business."

Rosenbaum researched the party supply field and determined "the market was underserved." He opened Party, Party, Party, a small store in Randallstown.

The business did well enough to allow Rosenbaum to expand, although the opening of the second store, in Columbia's Dobbin Center, had an ominous beginning.

It was February 1983, just before Valentine's Day, when balloons and other party favors keep cash registers ringing.

But a severe storm dumped almost 2 feet of snow on the area. Some executives of the Rouse Co., shoveled snow to permit the new Dobbin Center to open.

The store was 1,600 square feet, but business was good. The store grew to 13,000 square feet, and Rosenbaum eventually expanded the chain to five.

He also owns Panache Papers, a stationery shop in The Mall in Columbia, which he opened 2 1/2 years ago.

Rosenbaum recently completed the sale of his party supply chain.

"Twenty-five years was kind of my target," he says. "I decided I wanted to move on and do some other things."

Succession also influenced the decision to sell.

His only child, Marni, is a physical education teacher and coach at River Hill High School and had no interest in taking over Party, Party, Party, he says.

"I'll be taking it a little bit easy as far as the business community goes," he says, "and doing more volunteering."

With more time for civic affairs, he volunteered for the Planning Board.

"That's one reason I expressed an interest in the board, especially with my background and degree in planning," he says.

Community service, he says, is part of "my general upbringing." And he also credits his wife, Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, for "instilling in our family [to] give back to the community."

Even while running two businesses, Rosenbaum found time for occasional civic efforts. He has, among other things, served on a hospital foundation, is a member of the Columbia Foundation and is involved with Relay for Life, which raises funds for cancer research, and his synagogue near Fulton.

His appointment to the Planning Board would mean coming full circle for Rosenbaum in two ways. First, it would get him back into the field in which he was trained. Second, it provides the opportunity to help determine the shape of downtown Columbia.

"I remember in college taking field trips to the so-called new town of Columbia," Rosenbaum says. "Back then, I said, 'That's going to be a unique place. I'd like to live there someday.'"

Now he could have an opportunity to affect the now-maturing Columbia.

The Planning Board has wrestled with some of the most important and contentious issues facing the county: expansions of two planned communities, Turf Valley and Maple Lawn, Maryland; the proposed 22-story residential-retail complex in Columbia; comprehensive zoning; and the tug of war between western land preservation efforts and developers' demand for land.

"I know it's a thankless job," Rosenbaum says, "... but I have a passion for it at the local level. I was involved in the state level and I had some contact at the federal level, as well. But the rubber meets the road at the county level. This is where things happen.

"You have a chance to influence what's happening and that's what makes it interesting. In the end, just the satisfaction that you get in helping guide and help implement how things are [done] in the community."

He says he simply hopes "to give back to the county. It's been good to me, and I just want to serve in a positive way."

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