Once upon a time in a place called Baltimore County there were two "town centers."
One was called Owings Mills. It had a fancy Metro line, a posh mall, even some national acclaim as the address for public TV's "Wall Street Week." The other was named White Marsh. It also had a big mall, but seemed dominated by spent sand-and-gravel quarries.
While Owings Mills remains a desirable location, it got entangled in a bollixed plan to create a man-made lake. White Marsh, meanwhile, has quietly generated some of the biggest economic news in the region, including the $37 million Time Warner Inc. distribution center, a $34 million "power center" discount shopping plaza and a $45 million "Main Street"-style entertainment complex.
"It's sort of like the tortoise and the hare," said P. David Fields, a county planning official. "The whole east and southeast of the county have been in the shadows. Owings Mills and the valleys have been fashionable. But [White Marsh] is gradually emerging as no less successful."
Indeed, the Rouse Co. reports that White Marsh Mall has come out of the retailing doldrums faster than the more upscale Owings Mills Mall. New County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III will want to keep his sights on White Marsh as he works to stimulate job growth. At the risk of mixing fable metaphors, it is the county's sleeping giant. While Howard and Harford counties parlayed their location along Interstate 95 into success, the county has been slow to capitalize on that asset.
However, the prestige of the Time Warner deal is causing other businesses to take notice. The proposed "power center," like the Rouse Co.'s thriving Snowden Square in Columbia, and the "Avenue at White Marsh," resembling Reston's Town Center, will build on the retail momentum begun there 14 years ago by Rouse's White Marsh Mall.
Despite the fact that a broad-based, family-oriented market of nearly 800,000 exists within 20 minutes of White Marsh, some observers wonder if the east county's stepchild-image will hold it back. To the contrary, that has not been the experience elsewhere in the region: Harford's booming "development envelope" is adjacent to that county's poorest communities. Likewise, Anne Arundel County's hottest housing pocket is just a hop from the seedy "boomtown" area outside Fort Meade.
White Marsh seems poised to help better the recent fortunes of the county in economic development. It's a tortoise about to bust out of its shell.