2 stores closing in village center Owen Brown retailers blame poor location, increased competition

March 10, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

A newspaper store, a used-book store and possibly an ice cream shop are leaving the aging Owen Brown Village Center, triggering frustration among the village's residents and merchants.

By the end of the month, Cover to Cover Bookstore and Cafe and the News Center, which sells magazines, newspapers and cards, will close. The owner of the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream store says he may close later this year.

Many of the 14 merchants in Owen Brown complain that increased competition from large stores, especially along Route 175 in east Columbia, is making it tough to stay afloat in the aging center with a design that is considered obsolete.

Retailers say the enclosed center's dark brown and orange color scheme is dreary. Shoppers complain that it is difficult to find the center, tucked away on Cradlerock Way.

Officials of Giant Food, which operates the center through its GFS Realty subsidiary and has a supermarket there, say they recognize the problem and plan a major renovation.

Giant officials say they have hired a New York architecture firm and hope to start making the center larger and more accessible this summer or fall.

The renovations, which will cost more than $1 million, will take six to nine months, said Barry Scher, a spokesman for the company. He would not discuss the exact plans.

"We're going to reconfigure the center, upgrade it and add some new lighting," Scher said. "The way the center is designed is old. Retail is changing all the time and what worked 20 years ago doesn't work now."

The changes will come too late for some stores.

"We just can't compete," said Ruth Ann Auditori, a supervisor at the News Center, which has been in the village center for 17 years. "The Giant carries everything we have. It's just a sign of the times in Columbia, where the big guys are running us little guys out."

Ashok Dhawan, owner of the Baskin-Robbins, said: "This shopping center is dead. If I make it through this season, I'm not sure if there will be another."

A sign on the door of Cover to Cover said the store, which is selling everything for half price, would be open only three days this week. The owner could not be reached, but other merchants said the store would soon close permanently.

"Giant has the power and resources to have fixed this place up a month ago," said Steve Heintzelman, owner of Sonoma's Bar & Grill in the center. "All they are doing is losing tenants. People want to go where there is something new, not to something that is old and decaying."

Already this year, a jewelry shop left the Owen Brown center for more space and better visibility in Columbia's newest village center, River Hill, which is on a major thoroughfare, Route 108, and built like a strip mall.

The only stores in the Owen Brown center that are making a sizable profit, many say, are the liquor store and the Giant.

To residents of Owen Brown, losing two of the center's merchants is a disappointment.

"Columbia isn't what it used to be, with villages with lots of different, little stores anymore," said Les Goldberg, 53, a Long Reach resident who often shops in the Owen Brown center. "It's a new generation of people here who want to see McDonald's everywhere and the same stores over and over again."

Some residents have asked for a pizza shop or a dollar store in the center. They have repeatedly asked for better signs to stores.

Heintzelman said he opened his restaurant six months ago expecting the steady flow of traffic into the Giant to generate business. Instead, he says profits have been 30 to 40 percent less than expected.

"This place is so enclosed and so outdated," he said. "This place has cancer and they [GFS Realty] won't do anything about it."

A renovation at the Owen Brown center would follow the lead of Columbia Management, Inc., a Rouse Co. subsidiary that manages Columbia's nine other village centers.

It is spending millions of dollars this year to renovate three of its aging centers: Harper's Choice, Long Reach and Oakland Mills.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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