As news of the Rouse Co. sale spread throughout the region yesterday, local officials and residents struggled to picture the area without the company that physically and ideologically transformed it with such projects as the planned town of Columbia and Harborplace.
Many worried about the cultural and economic fallout from the loss of a signature corporate headquarters and the elimination of local control over more than a dozen major real estate developments.
Jobs are likely to be lost if the company's headquarters, where 533 employees work, moves as expected to Chicago, the home of the company's new owner, General Growth Properties, Inc. Philanthropy that was spearheaded by the company's late founder, James W. Rouse, could be affected. Executives who had played significant roles on boards and committees might disappear.
"It's a serious loss to the state of Maryland," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "I don't think if Jim Rouse was alive today, he would approve of this. I know he wouldn't."
Said Howard County Executive James N. Robey: "The Rouse Co. as we know it will no longer exist."
It is unclear how the sale will affect Rouse's properties, which include the Merriweather Post Pavilion, malls in White Marsh and Owings Mills, and a number of commercial properties and undeveloped land in Columbia.
Anthony W. Deering, Rouse's chairman and chief executive, said he believes the resulting company will be headquartered in Chicago and keep the General Growth name. He said the name Rouse might be used for community development activities.
Robey said he was "in shock" when he heard the news and hopes the headquarters will remain in Columbia at its Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront building, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry to the company's specifications.
After Robey spoke yesterday with Deering, he said, "He assures me this is a fine company they are merging with and they expect not to see any major changes."
Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said the news hit her like a "bombshell." She said Rouse is a "backbone" of the community not only because of the money it donates, but also its employees who participate in the community.
She said she hopes the new company will maintain the vision of Columbia, built in 1967 as a place where people of diverse racial and economic backgrounds would live together.
"The hope is that we'll be all right," Brown said, "that the care will still be there that we've all been used to."
University of Baltimore economist Richard Clinch said Rouse has been "a dominant presence" in Columbia with its active sponsorship of events and attention to development details.
"Losing that is going to be a big blow to Columbia," said Clinch, who lives there.
Other officials said they weren't especially surprised - or concerned - by the sale.
"It's a free world. It's a free-market economy," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "I don't think we should conclude the sky is falling."
Some said the sale was predictable, as Columbia has grown to a population of 96,000 and is essentially built out, and Rouse has other development interests in the 67,000-resident Summerlin, Nev., near Las Vegas, and owns 8,060 acres near Houston for earmarked development.
"I think that one day we all knew that we would not have a Rouse Co. in Columbia," said Richard W. Story, chief executive of Howard's Economic Development Authority. "We all knew the day would come. Obviously today is that day."
County leaders were concerned primarily about the headquarters being moved nearly 700 miles away, resulting in a loss of jobs and affecting the number of Rouse employees who sit on foundation boards and the amount of money the company donates.
Howard County, however, is hardly starved for jobs, with an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, the lowest in the metropolitan area, according to the most recent state figures.
"That's going to be the most significant change, the loss of senior corporate executives being involved in their community," Story said. "It's different when the corporation's headquarters are in Chicago. Their philanthropy starts at home."
The Rouse Co. has supported a number of nonprofit organizations and community institutions through the Rouse Company Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as its charitable arm. As part of the sale, the foundation is to receive a $20 million bequest.
The foundation gave $1.2 million in grants in 2002, according to its IRS filing. Locally, it has been a strong supporter of Howard Community College, selling it the land for its campus at a nominal price, funding scholarships and donating $350,000 toward a new Visual and Performing Arts Instructional Building.
Of its developments, Columbia remains Rouse's cornerstone - a visionary planned community it built on more than 14,000 acres in Howard County, which at the time had about 48,000 residents.