From GE to Edge City

July 21, 1995

For proof of the real estate maxim that location is everything, see the success of the former General Electric industrial park in Columbia.

When the facility opened some 25 years ago, Columbia was envisioned as a hub of manufacturing. But blue collars did not become Jim Rouse's planned city. It was white collars all the way, as a large and prosperous middle class grew in Howard County. The draw? Howard is an attractive suburban jurisdiction, to be sure, but perhaps most significantly, it also offers access to the many professional and cultural opportunities in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

General Electric hung on in Columbia for 15 years before closing its 1,100-acre plant in the mid-1980s. It became one more American manufacturing facility shuttered by changing times. Yet in contrast to factory sites that are still dormant -- the so-called "brownfields" that bedevil many jurisdictions -- the former GE park is thriving.

The Rouse Co. has turned the property into a bustling complex of varied uses, including the Gateway Plaza business park, the Snowden Square "power center" of huge retail stores and a million-square-foot warehouse and distribution site leased by Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Among the reasons for this success, location must be placed at or near the top. Business owners seeking a prime spot to settle have to be impressed by Howard's proximity to major highways, airports, sea ports and rail lines. Also, the county is fortunate to sit in the middle of not only the Baltimore-Washington region but the whole East Coast. Add an affluent, well-educated populace, and the county looks even more inviting.

The latest proposals for the one-time industrial park are a housing complex of 650 townhomes, condominiums and apartments and a 10-screen cinema. Some concern has been expressed that the housing units will further strain local roads and schools, but a traffic consultant's study and county planners say otherwise.

Such diverse use of a large property is the dream of any local government chief. Certainly County Executive Charles I. Ecker can sleep better knowing that the activity at the old General Electric park helps put more of the tax burden on businesses and less on homeowners, even with the 650 planned residences. Of course, Mr. Ecker might be fitfully counting sheep each night instead of blessings if his county didn't enjoy such an advantageous location.

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