Sitting in his empty barbershop with the television blaring, 65-year-old Anthony Tringali recalled better times at Wilde Lake Village Center, where his shop opened with the birth of the new town in June 1967.
"I had five barbers working for me at one time," he said. "Now I'm down to one and a half - and I'm the one."
Between the recession and the closing of the center's anchor Giant supermarket and several other stores, Tringali's business is down by half again in the past two years, he said, but he's not done.
Howard County Council members unanimously adopted new rules this week that officials hope will pave the way for a rebirth of Wilde Lake, and, over time, more of Columbia's nine village centers. Altering the vision of James Rouse, the revered founder of one the country's premier planned communities, the council removed the gatekeeper function that the master developer of Columbia has served for decades.
Now, plans for new stores, buildings and homes in village centers will be in the hands of individual landowners, if the county zoning board, composed of elected council members, agrees.
Tringali wants to be part of it all.
"We have plenty of neighbors and plenty of shoppers in this area," he said. "I'd like to stay here for whatever Wilde Lake becomes."
Wilde Lake could benefit since it is within walking distance of Columbia's town center and central shopping mall, where much grander plans by master developer, General Growth Properties, call for 5,500 new residences and more than 5 million square feet of new stores, offices and hotels to be built during the next few decades. General Growth is now in bankruptcy protection.
Along the center's lightly traveled Lynx Lane, though, that future still looks pretty iffy after several years of wrangling between longtime village residents and the center's owner, Kimco Realty, which also owns five other, more prosperous centers.
Columbia's retail centers have had rough sledding since the mid 1990s, when the first big-box center opened in east Columbia and began draining business away. Small hardware stores, bookstores, smaller supermarkets and pharmacies saw their customers flee to wholesale warehouses, megastores such as Target, and soon, a much anticipated 160,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket.
The centers were sold in 2000, with the property company Kimco taking over most. While they and other owners have taken over, they were not permitted to ask the county for changes.
Kimco did propose demolishing the Wilde Lake center to replace it with 500 apartments in midrise towers, along with 50,000 square feet of new retail space.
Angry residents saw the plan as the death of the village center concept they feel is a central tenet of Rouse's original plan to create and sustain communities.
But the new process offers no guarantees that village residents and Kimco can agree on anything, and the recession could make redevelopment difficult.
The law now allows Kimco to ask the county zoning board for major land use modifications that would permit residential units. It also adds lots of protective steps for residents and new hurdles for property owners.
County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat who lives close to the Wilde Lake village center, said she's "hopeful" the new process will allow progress.
All the County Council members made it clear as they passed the new law last week that they want village centers to remain primarily commercial, with any new homes supporting businesses, not replacing them, though skeptics say there are no guarantees.
"You want to make sure it doesn't get gutted so it becomes residential with a convenience store," Fulton Republican Greg Fox said at one point during the voting.
But some residents, like former County Councilman Lloyd Knowles, fear that if Kimco can build more lucrative apartments or condominiums, it won't try hard to attract retail tenants.
Although both sides say they are ready to sit down and work out a mutually acceptable plan, there are lots of stumbling blocks. Residents want a new food store, and they are holding their ground.
"I'm really not prepared to compromise on this," said Nancy Alexander, chairwoman of the Wilde Lake Village Board. While Kimco officials have maintained that it's not feasible for such a small building in this age of big box retailing, Alexander said "there are little grocery stores around that aren't huge."
Residents would also like a drugstore, a coffee shop, and maybe a pub like the one that prospered in the 1970s and '80s. "That would be terrific," Alexander said. She's willing to consider residences, she said, but not 500.
Kimco officials are keeping mum, having learned a hard lesson about proposing a concept before consulting residents who feel they have as much at stake in the village center as Kimco does, if not more.
Geoffrey Glazer, Kimco's vice president for development, said he'll be looking to talk after a short breather, but he said the old plan is history and wouldn't offer any specific new ones.
"I now get to sit down with the villages," he said.