New venture inspires new hope

Chinese restaurant opens in Oakland Mills

August 27, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The last boarded-up vestige of the old Oakland Mills Village Center has disappeared, replaced by Congee House, a new Chinese restaurant that residents hope will bring good fortune.

Rejuvenation of the long-empty Hardee's building facing Stevens Forest Road is the kind of progress that local leaders want as Howard County looks more toward preservation of older communities after 35 years of fast growth.

Neighborhood leaders are delighted to have what Village Board President David Hatch calls "the most visible building in the village center" back in business, but they're concerned that having a second Chinese restaurant might be more than the center can support.

The smaller Lucky's China Inn is housed in the main section of the newly renovated village center, and owner Elsa Chang is worried about competition. But Congee House part-owners Michael Chao and Tak W. Wong say they hope to draw customers from their last place of employment -- Hunan Manor restaurant in Owen Brown.

"The place is too busy," Chao said about Hunan.

Despite the worries, village residents are happy for the change from the abandoned fast-food place, and local politicians are encouraged.

"It was just an eyesore down there," said Earl Jones, a village resident since 1970 and Oakland Mills' representative on the Columbia Council.

The former Hardee's restaurant remained closed and boarded up for several years, while Rouse Co. spent millions to rebuild the 30-year-old village center, Columbia's second.

A 42,000-square-foot Metro Food Market opened in the reconfigured shopping center last year, but the first thing shoppers entering from the heavily traveled Stevens Forest Road saw was the abandoned Hardee's.

"Boarded-up buildings sort of reflect the tone and nature of the neighborhood. You don't want to have boarded-up buildings," Jones said.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who represents the area, helped organize a community effort to create a plan for keeping Oakland Mills a high-quality community as it ages -- a growing challenge throughout Columbia.

"I think it's really evidence of renewed interest in the community. It will restore optimism," he said.

Chao and Kevin Tong, manager of the new restaurant, converted the old building in two months, mainly by refinishing wood, installing a new ceiling and making other minor aesthetic changes, while spending most of the $200,000 they invested on renovating the kitchen. The former drive-through window was left intact, but the owners say they don't plan to use it. The restaurant opened Wednesday, although carpeting was not in place. Chao said the grand opening is scheduled for Sept. 23, when a full-scale Chinese dragon parade and ceremony will be staged.

"There's nothing like this in Maryland," Tong said about what he called "traditional" Hong Kong and Malaysian cuisine at the 88-seat restaurant.

Congee House has 10 employees, Tong said, though more might be added if business picks up.

Tong is confident, he said, despite the oft-heard complaint that village centers are off the high-volume roads that bring in more customers.

"This location can do business," he said.

Roselyn Havas, another village board member, expressed a common wish. "I'm hoping it will bring in more people with money to spend in the area."

Pub Date: 8/27/99

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