Thursday, May 09, 2013

Beans Last Days

Thirteen years ago, at The Rouse Company annual shareholders meeting, Tony Deering announced that catalog retailer LL Bean would be opening its first ever retail (non-outlet) store at The Mall. The story goes that this announcement upstaged the retailers own plans to break the news. To show their displeasure at this preemptive PR strike by a real estate developer, LL Bean went ahead and opened their Tysons Corner store first.

Despite this corporate silliness, LL Bean opened its Columbia store in May of 2001, a few months after Tysons Corner. This Sunday, after twelve years selling khakis and canoes to HoCo locos, the Columbia store will close. By midsummer the 30,000 square foot building that housed them will be gone, replaced by a new plaza and a reopening of the old main entrance.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

In This Months Business Monthly

When my family moved into the Bryant Woods neighborhood in Columbia in the summer of 1968 there were model homes on our cul de sac making it a regular stop for the Columbia tour buses. There was 7-11 store nearby with a snack bar but the real action was up at the Wilde Lake Village Center where, in addition to a grocery store, there was a butcher, a bookstore, a cheese shop, a pharmacy with a soda fountain, a women’s clothing store and a record store. The village center was the social and commercial hub of the community. One of the highlights of the holiday season was when the village center would host an open house. As Columbia residents visited the different stores, each merchant provided some type of holiday fare. The punch that Columbia Bank and Trust ladled out was particularly popular.

For some residents of Columbia, this was the embodiment of the Jim Rouse vision.

Only it wasn't.

In the late sixties, Columbia was still a small town with a population of less than 10,000. A forlorn silo stood where The Mall is today.

It didn't last long. The true Rouse vision was to build a city ten times that size. By the beginning of the seventies residents of the new city began to get new places to gather. Oakland Mills village center came online in 1969 and Harper's Choice got their own village center in 1971. Wilde Lake was no longer something unique, it was simply one of three.

The biggest change for Wilde Lake though came in 1972 when that lonely silo was replaced with a regional mall. The bookstore and clothing store moved out of Wilde Lake and into The Mall. The slow decline of the centers fortunes had begun. By the mid seventies memories of those early year holiday open house nights had already begun to fade.

You can read this months column here.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Rain Clouds

Rain. Nobody seems to be enjoying the rain today. It doesn't help that its cold too, at least for May.

I was thinking about this as I drove from The Mall back to my office this afternoon during one of the heavier downpours. It occurred to me that rain is a getting a bad rap this spring. Thanks to the General Assembly, Marylanders have a new to tax to associate with this weather event. The very term “rain tax” comes off as an affront to Mother Nature.

I think it’s doomed.

What started with grumbling on the fringes of the left and the right is now becoming a bipartisan backlash. The lefties are pissed because this is a tax that treats everyone equally, rich or poor. The righties hated it because they hate anything that includes the word tax. It was one thing when Repub county exec Laura Nueman came out against it but when a prominent Dem like city councilperson Mary Pat Clarke added her voice to the fray, it got my attention.

Finally, here’s an issue that both parties can come together on. This could be the beginning of the end of the rain tax, at least in its current form. I suffer no illusion that this tax will actually go away. It will quietly get repackaged into some other environmental or public utilities legislation. Something less susceptible to a nickname like rain tax.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Moving Stuff

I've spent more time thinking about things to post here than I have writing them. The fact of the matter is that I've been a little preoccupied lately. My real job has caused a bit of writers slack.

I have been going through a transition at work. The company I've represented for the past fifteen years or so, ceased to exist last month. It wasn't a surprise. For the past year the principals had been working through the process of becoming the Maryland office of the national brokerage firm Lee & Associates.  At the end of March it was finally a done deal. Literally overnight we went from an office on Dobbin Road with four people to an office in Gateway with seven. We have new everything and while that is nice in many ways it still requires having to deal with new passwords, new copy machine, new phone system, and so on.

Recall that I am an old dog and all of the sudden I’m being hit with a lot of new tricks.

It’s all good, even those hiccups you always encounter in a new space. This morning for instance we arrived to find all office communications completely shut down, no phones, no server, no Internet. It was noon before that got ironed out.

In a way this move, like the others I've been through before, provides first hand knowledge for my clients. When I suggest that moving their offices will be disruptive in ways they may not have anticipated, I speak from experience.

Perhaps you’re wondering what the picture of the Rouse brother statue has to do with any of this. The answer is nothing. I just happen to like the shot.

Growler Guy

Beer is best when it’s fresh from the tap and one of the best ways to enjoy that freshness at home is the beer growler. Last year the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to allow HoCo restaurants and liquor stores to sell draft beers in growlers. Less than one year later I've become a regular growler guy.

Growlers are also one of the best ways to enjoy the seemingly endless progression of craft beers. At the Wine Bin in Ellicott City for instance, they feature six growler offerings at any given time. Once a tap goes dry it is replaced with something new. There is always something different to try when I go in for a refill. Since they also offer a 32 oz growler you don’t have to make a big commitment to any one brew. Anyone can drink two pints of beer they only sort of like, right?

There are some things to take into consideration with growlers. For one, they don’t keep long. If you bring home beer in growler you should drink it within a week. The longer it sits, the more it loses that freshness. How it’s filled could be an issue as well. In his Thirsty in Seattle blog, Dan Swanson writes he’s “had enough flat, oxidized growlers to know that consistency in properly filling growlers is a big problem, at least at some establishments.  Let’s look at the array of filling technique advice.  Some folks say you should bottom-fill a growler using a tube.  Others say you can just fill from the top.  There are even more pro tips: Use a CO2 purge, make sure the growler is cold, cap on foam, use plastic polyseal caps (not the cheap white metal ones), and fill using counter pressure.  With all the varying information out there, it’s no wonder growlers aren't consistently filled flawlessly.”

“If your growler was not filled and capped properly, the beer will start to oxidize and go flat the minute you walk out the door.”

So far, I haven’t experienced any freshness failures. I guess the Wine Bin boys are using proper filling techniques but I can just as easily appreciate how that might not always be the case.

Still I like the upside. As Josh Christie writes in Brews and Books, "Growlers are also environmental friendly and often less expensive than prepackaged beer, which works out for everyone.”

I’ll drink to that.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Wooly Bully

It’s too late for this year but you might want to pencil the 41st Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival into your calendar for next spring. I readily admit to being surprised at how big it is. The two day event at the Howard County Fairgrounds attracts about 85,000 visitors from all over. It is the premier festival “celebrating all things sheep and wool” in the world.

It’s free too.
We watched sheep dogs go through their paces, ate lamb sausage sandwiches, sampled lambs milk cheese, and checked out at a lot stuff made out of wool.

There was even sheep art. Conni Tӧgel has a collection of works she calls Sheep Incognito, perfect for this crowd. This work is entitled “Ewe Tube.”
It’s a dry event and after all that lamb I was a little thirsty so to keep in the spirit of things I picked up a six pack of Baba Black Lager on the way home. Not baaaaad.


All in all, it was a wooly bully day.

You can see more pictures of the 40th Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival here.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

HoCo’s Outer Beltway

Since moving to the corporate colony of Columbia Gateway I've begun using an interstate highway to move between Columbia and Ellicott City. From Route 32 to the south, to Route 100 to the north, I-95 has become part of makeshift HoCo outer beltway.

The numbers bear this out. According to the MDOT traffic maps, average daily vehicle volume on I-95 increases from an average daily volume of 190,680 cars below Route 32 to a peak volume of 197,902 vehicles between Route 175 and Route 100. After MD Route 100 the volume drops back down to the 191,280.

Today, at 4:00 PM, as I merged on to 95 from 175, traffic had slowed to 35 mph. By the time I hit 100 it was picking back up again. 

Even with the slower speed, I managed to make it from my office in Gateway to my appointment in Ellicott City in just over 10 minutes.

Mumbles & Squeaks Closing

Mumbles & Squeaks is not just a toy store with a great name, it’s a great toy store. For twenty some years Ed and Frank offered HoCo locos an alternative to big box and mall toy stores. Mumbles & Squeaks was like a curated exhibit of simple and unique toys. I don’t believe they carried anything electronic.

I refer to them in past tense because yesterday, on their Facebook page, Ed and Frank announced that they are closing up shop “to fulfill a long time dream of becoming beach bums in Florida.”

Can I come?

They will remain open until the end of the month as they sell off their inventory.

“We travel lite so we will only take our memories. Everything must go! Please come by wish us well! Share our news and our sale with all your friends so we don't miss anyone. You may forward this message to them.

Please come to Mumbles and Squeaks to share a story, a hug, a tear. As we said, this is bitter sweet. We won't say, "Goodbye." We would rather say, "We will save you a seat on the beach!"

Mumbles and Squeaks was one of those businesses that make Ellicott City unique. They will be missed.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

On the Fringe of a Boomtown

Bloomberg recently ranked the Top 12 American Boomtowns. The business editors “sorted through U.S. Census data for metropolitan areas to rank those with the greatest population growth, then scored areas on growth in gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation.”

They should have labeled them Boom-metros though, by the way they lumped areas together to achieve a certain population threshold. For instance, the number one Bloomberg boomer is Austin-Round Rock, Texas. A quick calculation using Google Earth puts Round Rock about 16.5 miles from Austin, as the crow flies.

I point this out because Washington DC “which includes neighboring towns in Virginia and Maryland” is Bloomberg boomer number 6. Using the same methodology I used with Boomberg one, I determined that 16.5 miles in a straight line from the center of DC would bring you right about to Fulton on the southern fringe of HoCo. Close enough to feel the booms ripples.

In some ways HoCo, with its 5.2% unemployment rate is even doing better than its next door boom-metro area where it is averaging 5.5%.