The Selling of Columbia

March 21, 1994

Does Columbia still need to be explained? The Rouse Co. stopped believing it did. In 1989, the company closed the exhibit center that it had built at Lake Kittamaqundi to promote James Rouse's visionary experiment in urban living.

The center performed this task for more than two decades. But five years ago, the Rouse Co. decided that Columbia, with its pioneering design and unusual street names, had become so well-known it no longer needed interpretation. From 1989 through last year, the building in which the center had been housed was occupied by various local businesses. The last tenant, a realty firm, vacated three months ago. The Rouse Co. now plans to convert the structure, one of Columbia's first, into a dining and live-entertainment complex.

But back to our opening question: The answer has to be yes. The idea that any town is beyond promotion -- even a town that has boomed the way Columbia has since the 1960s -- seems misguided when one considers that much larger cities, not to mention whole counties and states, have information centers putting out the good word to residents and visitors alike. As more governments turn to tourism as a revenue source, a place with as much visitor potential as Columbia puts itself at a disadvantage when it declines to sell itself.

Fortunately, the Welcome and Information Center of the Columbia Association, which manages the planned city, has been helping to fill that role since late 1992. In fact, it was opened in response to residents who argued it was needed after the old Exhibit Center shut down.

Located in the association's Town Center offices, the facility uses photographs, personal reminiscences by local figures and other exhibits to offer a broad perspective on Columbia history. The unwavering goal is to expound on the concept of Columbia as a new kind of urban setting, where citizens of different backgrounds find it easier to live together and the environment is a partner rather than a hostage of civic design.

Howard County Executive Charles Ecker says he would some day like to see a facility that would promote both the history and the industry of the entire subdivision. That's an idea worth pursuing. Meanwhile, Columbia residents can feel heartened that the local association has resumed the important and necessary job of promoting the hometown.

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