Hopes hinge on new anchor

Business: Shop owners are hoping a new Food Lion will revitalize Oakland Mills Village Center.

October 19, 2004|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN STAFF

For a group of hardy shopkeepers at Oakland Mills Village Center, the past couple of years without an anchor store have been tough. But it could have been far worse if not for their loyal Columbia customers, they say.

These days, the merchants are optimistic when they talk about the Food Lion supermarket set to open Nov. 17. They are also thrilled - and perhaps a bit relieved - to hear that a new restaurant will take over the space once used by the Last Chance Saloon, a longtime neighborhood pub that closed in January.

"Right now, it's a little bit quiet," said Andrew Chang, 39, owner of Lucky's China Inn, a Chinese restaurant at the center for the past eight years. "But hopefully in the future, when the supermarket opens up, it'll bring more people."

Since Metro Food Market closed in 2001, Oakland Mills, one of Columbia's oldest villages, has been pining for an infusion of commerce, a major anchor that would draw shoppers who would help rejuvenate the smaller stores.

"If you haven't had anything for 3 1/2 years, anything will be wonderful," said Fred R. Leunissen, 79, owner of Village Barber Stylists.

Leunissen, a village resident and shop owner for 32 years, said, "No village is good without an anchor. My business went straight down because, you know, you don't have any walk-ins" without an anchor store.

But the village area also was vexed by spurts of crime - including two homicides last year - raising concerns that the neighborhood had a nagging crime problem. Shopkeepers and other residents and local officials say that the village center has not been a flash point for trouble and that any negative perception is far worse than reality.

Bill Woodcock, chairman of the village board, said that the board and residents are working with police and other entities, such as the local nonprofit Enterprise and Horizon foundations, to develop a long-term revitalization plan for the village.

He credits the Howard County Police Department with tackling crime issues. Since October last year, the police force has assigned an officer to the village center and its surrounding area. In August, police opened a satellite office - a furnished mobile trailer that serves as a base for officers in the area.

Police report that crime has decreased markedly in most categories since officers began patrolling the village center and immediate area.

From November last year to this month, the area has seen double-digit percentage declines in reports of assaults, drug violations, disorderly conduct, loitering and motor vehicle theft, police statistics show. The area had one rape, compared with none for the same period a year ago, and more calls for liquor violations and suspicious subjects and vehicles, the statistics show.

Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman, said increases in some categories, such as liquor violations and suspicious behavior, indicate that people feel they can report problems to the village center's officer.

Where other village centers are bustling on any given day, the Oakland Mills center is relatively tranquil. Most of its traffic is around the lunch or dinner hour: people stopping for food at Vennari's pizza or Lucky's China Inn.

Columbia Ice Rink, at the shopping center, draws people because of skating sessions, lessons and competitive games. But some shopkeepers say they don't see much of a bump in business from the rink's presence.

"I don't think the ice rink impacts the businesses that much, per se," said Ken Keepers, owner of Oakland Mills Liquors. "They usually go there, and they're gone."

Evidence of Food Lion's impending opening is in plain view. Last week, construction workers were hammering away on the store's facade and working inside into the evening. The store - one of Food Lion's approximately 1,200 outlets in 11 Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states - will be approximately 40,000 square feet and offer bakery, deli, produce, grocery and general merchandise sections, a company spokesman said.

Workers are also busy giving a face-lift to the space that was once the Last Chance Saloon. Restaurateur Alec Kantar, who also owns restaurants in Beltsville and Olney, said he expects to open Rusty's Chill n Grill next month.

Rusty's will have a lounge and full-service restaurant and will offer "your basic American fare" with a twist, Kantar said.

"It's going to be a true neighborhood restaurant," he said.

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