Wake-up call?

October 07, 2003

IT'S A CONTRACT dispute. In essence, the tenant claims it has long indicated its intent to renew its lease. But the landlord claims it didn't receive written notice in time, allowing it to renegotiate the lease or kick the tenant out.

After that, the dispute between the Rouse Co. and the owner of its lakefront corporate headquarters in the center of Columbia gets complicated in a hurry - not in the least because it raises the unexpected and untoward possibility of Rouse departing the Howard County planned community, its signature creation, by next April.

Through a company spokesman, Rouse Chairman and CEO Anthony W. Deering said yesterday the firm's "wish" is that it not move its headquarters of the last 30 years. In court filings arguing for that - the company is appealing after losing in Baltimore County Circuit Court - Rouse recounts an embarrassing snafu in which one of America's premier real estate developers neglected to directly renew its own lease.

The flap has prompted some of the company's local critics - a growing body since the death of famed founder James W. Rouse in 1996 - to speculate on whether this is somehow a plot to relocate, perhaps to Nevada, where it's building an eventually larger community.

The fate of Columbia's last major plot of land, about 60 acres near the Columbia Mall, is now before the Howard Zoning Board, and the firm frequently gets accused of having its eye elsewhere and of forgoing Columbia's best ideals in favor of wringing the last bit of profit from the town.

While some of that criticism has been valid at times, there's no firm sign that Rouse wants to leave Columbia and Maryland - and we hope none emerges.

At the very least, if the company were to depart Columbia, the loss of 500-plus jobs would be a devastating economic blow to the town of 96,000 residents that it carved out over four decades from 14,000 acres of Howard County farmland. If it left Maryland, it would mean the withering of ties between this state and a firm that has played a guiding role in its development the last 60 years - from some of the nation's first shopping malls, to Baltimore's Harborplace, to current residential projects in Howard and Prince George's counties.

Let's hope that this is just a wake-up call, a surprise warning that Columbia and Howard may need to prepare for the day when Rouse's interests could take it away. But let's also hope that day remains distant.

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