Owings Mills, Jr.?

Hi.  This article was first published in the Carroll County Times on November 30.  If you prefer to read that version, just  click on this link.  Otherwise, here goes…

 

According to Google Maps, the distance from Eldersburg to 10300 Mill Run Circle in Owings Mills is 10.5 miles. More or a less a straight shot east, down Liberty Road.

In case you’re wondering, 10300 Mill Run Circle is the address of what used to be the Owings Mills Mall. It was a nice mall, but couldn’t hold its market and eventually succumbed to the onslaught of big box store competition in western Baltimore County and to the emerging power of online sales. The great suburban malls that dominated retailing when the downtown department stores failed, are now themselves increasingly irrelevant. After all, the entire economy, nationwide, is there for the taking on our smartphones and personal computers.

Last week, the new owner of the mall property announced that its new “Mill Station” will be anchored by a Costco, Lowe’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The original name for the project was the “Owings Mills Town Center,” but the use of the term “Town” in the name of the place is a marketing ploy. It’s a strip center, plain and simple. There’s no “Town” about it.

As you can see from the image below, it’s a large strip center, but a strip center nonetheless.  It’s a place you may want to visit, to shop now and then, but do you really want to live there, to raise your family?

So will the new Costco, Lowe’s and Dick’s bring population growth and increase the tax base in western Baltimore County? No. Of course not and no one is suggesting otherwise. What they will do is steal customers from established businesses in their market, driving some smaller operations out of business and forcing profits down at others. Total employment in the area may actually decline as companies try to protect their profits by cutting back the number of people they have on their payrolls. Depending upon infrastructure, traffic congestion on some local roads will increase. Residential property values will either decline or stop rising at the rate residents would have otherwise enjoyed.

So why do Carroll County planners want to develop more large store retailing in Eldersburg? Because conceding to the demands of large store developers is “low hanging fruit.” It is, in other words, easy to opt for the least imaginative solution. Just re-zone, kick back and let whatever happens happen.

Imitating Owings Mills – or Howard or any other county, for that matter – should not be Carroll County’s objective. What attracted people to Carroll County, until recently when population growth flat-lined a decade ago, wasn’t big box stores or high density residential development. It was Carroll County’s rural environment and less anxious lifestyle that offered a clear and comfortable alternative to the core urban and over-developed suburban communities nearby.

The County’s environment was the secret sauce, the alternative ambiance that was just what many people needed for a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. Close to everything, but not yet infected by it. Its the original soul of Carroll County that planners and Commissioners should be leveraging to re-stimulate growth.

The County needs to build on what it does best. Unimaginative commercial development – ahead of essential improvements to infrastructure – is the planning equivalent to throwing everything up against the wall to see what sticks. The County can’t compete with Owings Mills. More to the point, it shouldn’t try. If anything, it may be that recent strip center and big box store commercial development is why Carroll County lost its competitive advantage and momentum.

Does anyone really think that more strip centers, large store commercial development and traffic congestion are on the shortlist of reasons to relocate anywhere? And if they are, good news. There’s a new Costco, Lowe’s and Dick’s coming soon, just 10.5 miles away.

Yes, the County needs more people and a larger tax base. Absolutely. So build the infrastructure, provide the quality schools, the services and the zoning for the attractive small town neighborhoods that are consistent with what has always made Carroll County special – and the employers will come.

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