New town will share in the coming boom, Rouse official says

January 13, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia is ideally situated to cash in on the boom in jobs and population expected for the mid-Atlantic region in the next 20 years, a Rouse Co. official told local business leaders yesterday.

"We'll be living in the next megalopolis," predicted Edward Ely, senior land sales and marketing director for the Rouse Co. who gave a "State of Columbia" report to about 80 members of the Columbia Business Exchange, a business group, at the Columbia Inn.

By 2015, he said, an estimated 18 million people will live and work in a burgeoning corridor that stretches across Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

That will mean more white-collar jobs, retail stores and houses for Columbia.

And that's good news for Columbia's economy, he said, since "job growth is the engine of all real growth."

But in the next few years, Columbia will have to navigate some dangerous economic waters, he warned. The state's currently weak economy and rising interest rates could hurt local businesses unless Columbia keeps existing jobs while attracting new ones, he said.

"People still have a healthy fear of the future and don't trust the economy will improve," Mr. Ely said.

His comments come at a time when the 82,000-resident new town is beginning to feel some signs of age and is in the middle of a debate over whether to incorporate as a city or continue to be run as a huge homeowners' association.

Right now, Columbia's economy is robust, said Mr. Ely.

He cited as an example Snowden Square, a 40-acre retail and restaurant center off Snowden River Parkway that has generated $25 million in salary and wages and $8 million in tax revenues since it opened in July 1993.

This year, Borders Books & Music and the Red Lobster Restaurant are scheduled to open there.

Mr. Ely also said that 122 new townhouses were sold in Columbia last year at an average price of $154,000, while apartment vacancy rates in the new town declined to less 4 percent.

But Mr. Ely also painted a picture of an aging Columbia surrounded by a county whose growth is expected to slow in the next decade, despite the regionwide increase in jobs and population.

Columbia must be prepared to adapt itself to a changing job market in which white-collar jobs are supplanted by jobs in service industries such as health care, he said.

"The winners are going to be places that keep existing jobs," while attracting new businesses and workers that can meet the needs of service industries, Mr. Ely said.

Those at yesterday's event had their own ideas about the Columbia's future.

"Columbia is going to become a city," predicted Jim Clark, a 23-year Columbia resident and ardent advocate of incorporating Columbia as a city.

"The growth is such that we're living in revolutionary times. . . . Columbia is going to become a city."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, meanwhile, said he worries about the impact of property taxes on longtime Columbia residents, particularly the elderly.

"We have to ensure a reasonable tax base so we don't force these elderly people out of their communities," Mr. Ecker said.

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