Columbia's Last Chance Saloon, a 23-year-old neighborhood pub that was a gathering place for longtime residents and evoked the planned town's early spirit, has suddenly closed, leaving another empty store in the troubled Oakland Mills Village Center.
"It's really sad. It's kind of an icon," said Oakland Mills Village manager Sandy Cederbaum.
Fred Leunissen, 79, who has owned the village barber shop for the past 31 years, said yesterday that he didn't know Last Chance had closed.
"I had no idea," he said. "Nothing goes smooth anymore."
The pub had a loyal following for weekly performances by the Last Chance Jazz Band and for half-price hamburgers Monday nights.
Many people looked forward to meeting friends there, for dinner or a little music, several said.
"We loved it there. It was a good place to go," said Robert D. Thulman, the band's 74-year-old leader who once co-owned the business.
"We go every week. It was kind of a group. The fun for me was meeting the people," said Barbara Bednarzik, who said her husband, Bob, "loved their burgers."
A hand-lettered sign taped to the darkened front door announced the restaurant-bar "closed for remodeling" as of Jan. 3, but Paul and Kathryn Sullivan, the licensees, gave no warning and aren't likely to re-open, the building's landlord said.
The Sullivans were not available for comment yesterday.
"I was surprised Monday when I heard the news," said Kevin Allen, director of retail and office properties for the Kimco Realty Corp., which bought nine of Columbia's 10 village centers from the Rouse Co.
"It was Kimco's goal to see the Last Chance stay at Oakland Mills for many years," he said in an e-mail.
Allen said several other restaurant owners have inquired about taking over the space, but renovations likely would be needed.
The Rouse Co. spent $3.5 million to rebuild the village center in 1997, though in the years that followed vacancies rose.
Barbara Russell, the Columbia Council representative for Oakland Mills, said the closing hurts efforts to breathe life into the center, where the supermarket closed and the gas station was demolished in 2001.
Village officials want Kimco "to take action to bring another business to that location as quickly as possible," she said.
What the center needs, she said, is a New York-style delicatessen that would draw more people from outside the immediate neighborhood.
County Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat who voted with the county Zoning Board on Monday to allow construction of a 96-unit apartment complex for seniors on the gas station lot, said he is worried about the center.
Last Chance was "a wonderful place and a real anchor," Rakes said. "We've got to do something. This is such a bad sign."
The Food Lion grocery chain is scheduled to begin renovations to the 43,000-square-foot supermarket building this year, a company spokesman said. The new store is scheduled to open in 2005.
Thulman said co-owner Paul Sullivan of Upper Marlboro called him Monday to say, "I've got bad news. I'm going to turn in the keys this afternoon."
Thulman said Sullivan simply could not make enough money to make the business viable and had too much debt. Kimco helped by cutting the pub's rent, Thulman said, but it was "way too late."
The jazz band switched from Sunday afternoons to Friday nights last month after Sullivan said there wasn't enough bar business and began closing the pub Sundays.
"Playing on Sunday was wonderful because it was mostly our crowd. We drew 60 to 90 people," Thulman said - mostly older people who all knew each other as regulars for the Dixieland jazz performances.
"We're very disappointed because we played music there for over 20 years. It's sort of an institution," he said, noting his wife, Ferebee, was the vocalist.
"It's not often you find a band that's had a job that long."