Columbia is often seen as a company town -- the Rouse Co.'s.
The company owned the acreage, it hatched the vision, and a legion of Rouse executives soldiered the city's development. So indelible has been the company's stamp, that Jim Rouse, who never claimed to be more than a developer, is considered founding father much in the fashion of colonial lords and factory barons.
The Rouse Co. is the largest publicly held real estate firm in the United States. Its portfolio of 73 retail centers, 17 office complexes and three hotels includes some of the nation's most renowned projects -- Harborplace and the Gallery in Baltimore, Arizona Center in Phoenix, Underground in Atlanta and Faneuil Hall in Boston.
Columbia has been one of its brightest stars.
"The intent was to be a winner," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's vice president for community development. "One of the goals of the Rouse Co., and this is very important, was to make a profit.
"Columbia is testimony to our skill," Scavo said. "And that translates into professional respect."
The power of success can be measured in other ways. Today, Columbia is home to approximately 75,000 people and 2,300 businesses that employ more than 54,000. Moreover, according to Scavo, 35 percent of the people who live in Columbia also work here, and 60 percent of all single-family homes are sold to Columbia residents who are "buying up."
The company still has 2,000 acres of commercial land as yet undeveloped, with the capacity to add another 12 million square feet of commercial property to the 2 million square feet it currently owns.
The Rouse Co. is still viewed by many as the quiet power behind much of what happens in the town.
"In every survey that has been done asking residents who pulls the strings in Columbia, the majority point to the Rouse Co.," said Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a grass-roots organization that has been critical of the city's leadership.
Last November, most residents surveyed for the Columbia Forum's Governance Initiative said the Rouse Co. had more influence over the city than did the county executive, the Columbia Council, the County Council or residents.
But Rouse officials insist it has been cautious in how it wields power on its home turf. The company eschews the customary practice of contributing to political campaigns, and executives are forbidden from getting involved in local elections.
And while Hekimian insists the Rouse Co. has many powerful tentacles in the community, others say that the firm's power has diminished in recent years as other groups begin to assert themselves.
The Rouse Co. opinions "should carry weight; the weight of informed opinion, but no more weight than any other developer," says Padraic Kennedy, president of the Columbia Association.
With no government in the traditional sense, a large measure of the services in the city are controlled by the Columbia Association, which imposes an annual charge, or "lien," on Columbia property. The association is overseen by the Columbia Council, an elected body that often emphasizes its role as the association's board of directors over its other role as the community's elected representatives. The company is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the association, and the CA has charted an independent course, says Kennedy, who was hired 20 years ago by a Rouse-controlled Columbia Council.
County officials insist they have never felt pressure from Rouse officials over any issue affecting the company.
"They tend to be the quiet company," says council Chairman Paul Farragut, who recently voted against a Rouse proposal to build apartments on land adjacent to Symphony Woods.
Councilman Vernon C. Gray says the Rouse Co. has "never been that much into politics." Still, when the company speaks, there's a tendency to listen, he said.