Taking 'a consumer approach to dating'

September 10, 1995|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Move over condo, BMW and designer wear. The hottest new status symbol for upwardly mobile singles living in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs these days may simply be a Significant Other. Or a klatch of friends. Or at least a periodic date with a potential mate.

As more singles flock to suburbs to live near their jobs in such "edge cities" as Columbia, Gaithersburg and Hunt Valley -- raising their presence to 40 percent of all adults in some areas -- they're encountering a jarring drawback: suburbia's relative isolation.

Just ask single schoolteacher Angela Pierce of Columbia: "If you're single, the suburbs can be deadly."

Hence a growing phenomenon in the Baltimore-Washington corridor: a surge in groups targeted at well-educated, professional and single baby-boomers -- 31- to 49-year-olds -- with the sole purpose of helping them meet and, possibly, mate.

Of course, suburban singles still find each other on traditional meeting grounds -- work, parties, neighborhood groceries. But organizers say the groups are increasingly popular because many singles find bars intimidating, the In Search Of columns risky and dating services expensive or contrived.

Then there's the matter of those too-long workdays of many suburban singles. "A lot of these single people in the suburbs are very successful and have well-paying jobs. But they are working an awful lot to keep up the lifestyle. They just don't have the time to meet potential mates," says Jerry Knoche, pastor at the New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia, which recently launched a singles ministry.

Single groups' participants run the gamut: the never-married, divorced, separated, widowed and single parents. Jill Marie Schmidt of New Carrollton in Prince George's County knows how tough it can be in suburbia for them. So a year ago, the 28-year-old, never-married customer service representative for MCI launched The Clubhouse, a Greenbelt-based group that offers such activities for singles as white-water rafting trips.

It has been an immediate hit -- attracting more than 500 singles, ages 26 to 34, who each have plunked down $50 for annual membership. "I knew from my own experience and from talking to friends that there was a real need for something that could bring single people together," Ms. Schmidt says.

Similar groups are popping up so fast in the Baltimore-Washington corridor that no one is sure how many of them have been formed.

"It's a non-threatening and natural way to meet people because it's focused on an activity that draws people together with common interests," says Bonnie Kuncl, activity chairwoman for 1st Place, a large, well-organized singles group based in Columbia. "We are not a meat market. It's just people who want to get together and have fun. . . . The suburbs aren't so isolating if you have people to do things with."

The rapid growth of these groups has been good for David Brown, who operates Canoeing Adventures, a canoe rental and guide business in Great Falls, Va. Most weekends between May and October, one singles group or another has booked his tour of the Potomac River.

"There're literally dozens of these groups now" in the Baltimore-Washington area, Mr. Brown says. "It's a healthy way to meet new people in an activity like a canoe trip."

But . . . find a life mate on a canoe full of strangers?

For single baby boomers, that's not a problem, says Lillian Maresch, founder of Generation Insights, a Minneapolis-based marketing and trends research firm.

"It's become a mantra of baby boomers everywhere, this search for the most appropriate mate. They are the first generation to take a consumer approach to dating. They want to make an informed decision, and they are not averse to innovative ways to meet a mate," she says.

And increasingly, this search is taking place in suburbia.

An estimated 12 million single baby boomers now live in American suburbs. In the Baltimore-Washington suburbs, roughly 20 percent of the adult population is single -- with much greater concentrations in what demographers call "edge cities," such suburban high-job-growth areas as Columbia.

Columbia was planned as the quintessential family community. But a 1991 survey by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, showed that 40 percent of the town's adults are single.

According to The Edge City Group, a Northern Virginia-based consultant, other edge cities in the region with relatively high concentrations of singles include Towson-Hunt Valley, Owings TC Mills, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg-Germantown and the I-270 corridor near Rockville.

"The suburbs have always been thought of as a place for families, but the numbers show us that is no longer true," says Ann Scherr, activities coordinator for the Columbia Association, which manages Columbia. Based on the Rouse survey -- which first pinpointed the community's higher-than-expected percentage of singles -- Ms. Scherr helped launch the 1st Place ** singles group in 1992.

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