Saturday, December 29, 2007

Making Her Voice Heard

Here's a portion of the letter we received from McKenzie Ditter, whose family owns Bun Penny. She gave us permission to reprint:

The Bun Penny market and cafe has been a part of the Columbia Mall for nearly forty years, and my family has owned it for the past eighteen. We have always struggled to survive in the mall, but after General Growth Properties' acquisition of the Rouse Company, it has become impossible. The day before this Thanksgiving, my father was notified that Bun Penny must leave the mall by January 15th. Just as they decided that Columbia no longer needed the Poinsettia Tree, they have decided that Bun Penny no longer has a place in the Columbia Mall.

Until now, my family has kept news of our closure a secret from customers and employees for fear of jeopardizing the final shipments from our food distributors. Now, with Christmas passed, I think it is safe to spread the word. I'd like Columbia to recognize the plight of small businesses in the profit-before-people culture fostered by companies like GGP. I want people to see how far the new owners of Columbia are straying from James Rouse's initial vision. My family has been struggling to pay an ever-increasing rent of $38,000 a month to a company based in Chicago that shows little to no regard for the traditions and institutions of Columbia.

I don't know what the future holds for Bun Penny, but knowing that it will no longer be a part of the mall is sad. As much as I dislike the superficiality of what the mall has become, it's hard to forget that it has been a second home to my father, mother, brother and me for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I played in the straw barrels that we used for gift baskets. I threw temper-tantrums in front of customers, had countless crushes on cute deli boys twice my age, and broke more bottles of wine than I can remember. I collected coffee beans from the ground, made sandwich signs and window murals, sewed tablecloths, and catered the beautiful weddings of some of Columbia's most powerful residents. I can make a gift basket with my eyes closed and recite the prices of hundreds of cracker boxes and jellies and teas in my sleep. For better or worse, Bun Penny has been an extremely important part of my life, and I know I am not alone.

Bun Penny is a family business - not just my immediate family, but the extended family of employees, customers, and even old Harry the produce man. There are men and women working at this store who have known me since before I was born. The Bun Penny family has seen births, teenage romances, graduations, marriages, divorces, and deaths. Through it all, there has always been love and support for anyone in need. This family deserves to know how much they are worth and how much they have meant to us. This is not the first time that a family business has been driven out of the Columbia Mall and it does not bode well for the few that remain. Considering the Poinsettia Tree debacle, tradition appears to be a tender topic during the holidays and GGP's continued efforts to undermine such traditions should not go unnoticed. If Columbia wants to preserve its other institutions, it must continue to make its voice heard.

McKenzie Ditter

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bun Penny To Close

We received an incredibly sad note Christmas Eve from the folks at Bun Penny in the mall. They are closing in the next few weeks after nearly 40 years in business; they can no longer afford the rents the mall's owner, General Growth Properties, is asking.

Bun Penny is a family owned business and its loss is another knock on the ability of small, independent institutions to survive in these parts.

Drop by soon and say goodbye.

We will.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas and happy holidays all. The Columbia Talk team is going to take a little break and unplug for a bit but not before we thank you all for stopping by. Keep those cards and letters coming. We really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

We'll be back in the new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Arrest Made In Mall Thefts

From the HoCo P.D.:

Howard County Police arrested an Owings Mills man for breaking into cars at the Columbia Mall and stealing Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Tony Brown, 37, of 951 Joshua Tree Ct., was apprehended yesterday after a witness reported seeing him break the window of a car in the parking lot.

Since Nov. 30, police have received 23 reports of GPS units and other property being stolen from cars at the mall. Brown has been charged in the two cases reported yesterday and is considered a suspect in the other cases while police continue to investigate.

The witness in yesterday’s case contacted police and provided the suspect’s vehicle description and tag number to officers. Police stopped the car, a black Honda Accord, on I-70 and saw multiple GPS units on the front passenger seat. It was later determined the property had been stolen from two different vehicles in the mall parking lot.

Brown has been charged with theft and destruction of property. Police are investigating Brown’s possible involvement in the other thefts at the mall, as well as in other local counties.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mass Transit Mass Development

We've often wondered why Howard County hasn't done more to capitalize on mass transit. Then we read in the Flier this week that there's a plan afoot to turn the parking lot next to the Savage MARC commuter rail station into a major commercial and residential development.

"The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a measure Dec. 12 to allow the state to donate the lot to Annapolis-based developer Petrie Ross Ventures LLC, which is slated to build a mixed-use community at the rail stop that state officials are hailing as a new model of "smart growth" development," the Flier reported.

"However, the project will not move forward until Howard County approves a plan to create a special taxing district that would target revenue from property taxes collected at the development to pay for a parking garage at the site, said Phillip Ross, owner and president of Petrie Ross Ventures."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why We Carol

We were listening to Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" this week when he launched into a story about where the word "caroling" came from. It seems a young girl named Carol went missing in London in 1888, and friends and family were flying about knocking on every door they could to find out if anyone knew anything about her disappearance. The problem was, Jack the Ripper was on the loose, and many people were reluctant to open their doors to strangers. So people started to sing Christmas songs to show they were friendly -- hence the tradition of "caroling" was born.

How creepy!. But was Bob pulling our leg?

We found this on the Web site of Minnesota public radio, in a 2006 posting by John Zech:

".....Total of those "just so" stories, like "plucking the yew," which find favor with a gullible public.

"My research (aka "googling") indicates the word "carol" comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. As the dance spread through Europe it caught on big time in France where it became "caroller," a circle dance accompanied by singers. Originally, carols were performed on many occasions during the year, but by the 17th century the carols evolved into songs associated primarily with Christmas.

"You can find the stories behind a lot of the famous carols at this website from the U.K."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slow Growth

Another sign of the slowing development market?

The Howard County Council is asking lots of questions about a proposal to move county offices into one floor of a proposed office building in Oakland Mills. The developer, according to this story in the Sun, says "the delay in government approval of the purchase of 15,000 square feet of office space is hurting his ability to sign other buyers, who are worried the county might back out."

Olusola Seriki, a principal in Metroventures Inc., the office building's developer, is a former village resident and a former Rouse Co. official. The Sun reported that he needs to sell about half of the 60,000-square-foot building to get construction financing. (His own firm plans to move to Columbia from Baltimore and occupy 5,200 square feet of office space--so that leaves about 10,000 square feet he still needs to fill just to keep the project on track.)

Projects like this are becoming harder and harder to do, as worries grow that economy is slowing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Keep An Eye On Those Presents

WBAL channel 11 has a short clip on thieves stealing presents from cars at the mall. Police have extra patrols going, including undercover operations. The Sun reported earlier this month that the department stations an additional 10 to 15 officers at the mall during the holidays.

But you can never be too careful.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bust Goes The Holiday Budget

Every year, we go through the same holiday shopping rituals. We start way early and snag the large or hard-to-find items at reasonable prices, in an orderly fashion, and then sit back in smug contentment and rest on our laurels....

Until this week, when we suddenly panic over the realization there are still stockings to fill, friends to remember, pets to reward.

And bust goes the budget...

So we'd thought we'd pass on this calendar reminder from the Columbia Association, and wish they had something like this for the bigger boys and girls among us.

The Columbia Association and the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County are joining together to host a Junior Achievement Economics for Success program, titled Money Matters Club: Young Energetic Savvy. This is a seven-week program for sixth, seventh and eighth-grade girls. Young women will be introduced to various skills, interests and values that will aid them in making healthy education, career and personal finance decisions in the future.

Classes will meet every Tuesday from 4 to 5pm at the Columbia Teen Center beginning January 8. To register, please call (410) 992-3726.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Poinsettia Tree Returns!

It's the Miracle of Little Patuxent Parkway. Now here's a Christmas story we can retell our children for generations to come.

Give a read to WaPo columnist Marc Fisher's account today:

Columbia's beloved Poinsettia Tree will blossom again next Christmas.

Sentiment and the voice of the people beat out the forces of marketing and management as the owners of The Mall in Columbia, who this fall scrapped the 36-year tradition of putting up a 20-foot-tall metal frame festooned with 685 potted poinsettia plants, announced yesterday that the past is now as important as the future.

Forty-eight hours after mall manager Karen Geary said the tree "doesn't define the community," her new boss, Greg Hamm, who started work this week, announced that "we need to respect the past while also embracing future opportunity."

Hamm, who is heading up General Growth Properties' ambitious plan for a new Town Center in Columbia, did a full 180 from the company's position earlier in the week, which was that even though residents complained vociferously about the loss of their cherished holiday tradition, the decision to do away with the tree was final.

"I'm just overwhelmed," said Claire Lea, an organizer of a protest at the mall that drew a couple of hundred people Sunday. "They've demonstrated some respect for the community's voice, which can be strong. I had planned for this fight to be my activity for the next year. Now I'll have to look for something else to do."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Poinsettia Protest

Who says Columbians got no passion? Just try messin' with their poinsettia tree. WaPo columnist Marc Fisher says a couple hundred folks bearing poinsettia plants showed up at the mall this past weekend to express their displeasure over the mall's decision to dispense with the holiday tradition.

Mall Senior General Manager Karen Geary "agreed to meet with a delegation of Tree lovers," Fisher writes. "But the meeting didn't move her. The mall has given away The Tree's steel frame, which is now decorated with lights as part of the Symphony of Lights show that benefits Howard County General Hospital. Geary says the mall is " donating the money it used to spend on The Tree to Habitat for Humanity."

" 'The Poinsettia Tree doesn't define the community,' she said. 'The people define the community.'

" But the people want their Poinsettia Tree back. That's something Geary should understand.

" 'I remember when I was a kid,' she said, 'and we would go from Milwaukee to Chicago to go put our noses to the windows of Marshall Field's on State Street and look at the wonderful displays, and look at the Christmas trees in the Walnut Room and in the atrium. Well, now there are escalators in that atrium.'

" She paused, and then, to her credit, told the rest of her story:

" 'The Walnut Room still has the tree, even though it's now Macy's. I can close my eyes and see the big tree now.' "

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Columbia Ain't Worth What It Once Was

At least that's what the town's big developer, General Growth Properties, says in a new release, according to this story in the Sun.

The company said is writing down the value of the land it owns in these parts because of the housing slump. It said unsold residential land in Columbia and Laurel is now worth $141 million. The Sun says the company last reported the value of unsold Columbia residential lots at $225 million, as of the end of 2006.

GGp bought the Rouse Co., the original developer of this town. Here's a link to the GGP release.

Toll Lanes For The Power Grid

They are coming, in the form of something called "smart" meters. Local utilities are experimenting with new gadgets that allow companies to charge more during times of peak power use and less when consumption is down, according to this story in WaPo.

Baltimore Gas & Electric plans to start testing advanced meters in 5,000 Maryland homes in April, including some in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

The idea is that you'll save money if you wait to do the laundry at night instead of in the afternoon when the AC is cranking because of all the global warming outside.

Recent studies have argued that the grid is overtaxed and brownouts may be in our future if new sources of power do not come on line or consumption ebbs. Some policymakers fear the day, not so far in the future, when everyone comes home on a hot afternoon and immediately wants to plug in their electric car so its ready to roll the following day.

Talk about a meltdown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Go Team!

Howard County high schools collected nine state championships this fall, five of which were snagged by River Hill.

They must be drinking some special water on the west side of Columbia.

River Hill was crowned state champs in 2A football, boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls cross country.

Glenelg claimed titles in 1A boys cross country and girls soccer.

Howard was tops in 3A girls cross country and Reservoir won honors in 3A girls volleyball.

All told, the nine titles represented the most in county history.

Monday, December 10, 2007

River Hill Loses A Little Green

The Sun had an interesting story over the weekend about county's reforestation requirements. It seems a developer cut down a stand for a new 11-home subdivision near River Hill and then replaced them with trees planted far away near Howard's border with Carroll and Frederick counties.

The new trees "are to be planted on the 130-acre Talley Farm in Woodbine, where John Talley has agreements with about a half-dozen developers to allow planting to meet reforestation requirements," the Sun reported. Talley's on-site landscape company handles the work.

" 'I can understand why a homeowner would like to see a tree put back in their backyard,' Talley said. 'But we're talking about environmental issues and water quality that affects all of us. In reality, the people of River Hill are benefiting from the trees planted on our farm. The trees are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon monoxide from all the cars.' "

Who needs shade and natural beauty anyways?

Friday, December 7, 2007

No Foie Gras For You

Don't tell the boss, but we're skipping out of work a little early tonight for an annual tradition: Ellicott City's Midnight Madness. We don't want to miss Santa on the firetruck or a chance to do a little late night shopping. We always fortify ourselves for the excursion with a stop at Tersiguel's, and this year will be no different.

So it was with interest we read a story in Flier about Tersiguel's decision to stop serving its pate de foie gras. It seems animal rights activists have been roaming the county threating to protest outside various restaurants until they stop serving the dish. Steve Wecker, the owner at Iron Bridge Wine Co., says he also took foie gras off his menu.

The activists "claim that the delicacy is cruel to geese because it involves a process in which the birds are force-fed to fatten their livers, then slaughtered," according to the newspaper.

Evidently a small metal funnel is involved.

Well...we don't know if this is a case of the food police gone wild or what, but we're thinking we might just order a salad tonight.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Route 29 Squeeze

Every morning, before we head off to the day job in Washington, we fire up the XM Radio to get the traffic report. Depending on what we hear, we head south on I-95 or take Route 29. We've had pretty good luck.

Coming home is a different matter. The traffic reports are less reliable. And there's always the unpredictability of the Route 29 squeeze, the section north of Johns Hopkins to Route 32, where for some inexplicable reason the state's award-winning traffic planners decided it was a good idea to take a lane away.

The last three times we have traveled this route we have passed accidents; yesterday was no different. Once a fender bender happened right beside us. It's far from a safe situation, you lose a lane on the left and have cars merging on the right.

We'd love to see the accident statistics for that stretch of road.

We recall reading somewhere that there are plans on the books to fix it, several years hence. But why did the county go along with it in the first place? Does anyone know?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Playing Field Shortage

No one is more excited than Team Talk about the prospects for a new regional park over in our neck of the world, at the old Blandair farm in east Columbia. We are heavy users of athletic facilities of all shapes and sizes, and we have paid mightily for the privilege over the years in fees and sweat equity, raking infields, lining soccer fields and setting up nets etc.


Some of the comments we read in this Examiner story got us thinking. Is there really a shortage? Define shortage.

On any given weekend we drive by schools and parks with unused fields. Maybe some are not as nice as others, but there's no reason they could not be made to be. The Oakland Mills High School baseball field is shaping up to be a pretty little field, thanks to boosters who built dugouts, school system investment, and lots of care and feeding. It's a scene repeated at several high schools around the county.

So here's our question. In a time of changing economic circumstances, when everyone is bracing for a prolonged housing slowdown, is it better to build new stuff or take super care of all we have, to protect the investment we have already made in our neighborhoods?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sheraton Columbia Gets A Makeover

Interstate Hotels & Resorts, one of the nation's largest independent hotel operators, has purchased the Sheraton Columbia for $46.5 million.

The Arlington company says it will immediately begin a $12 million renovation of the property, including upgrades to all guest rooms and public spaces. The renovation is expected to be completed by the end of 2008, according to a release.

Two. Four. Six. Eight. What Do We Ban-At-The-Gate?

The Howard County school system has officially banned outside food and beverages from high school gyms and stadiums, the Sun reports.

The effort is aimed at preventing kids from sneaking in alcohol, and many schools have already imposed their own restrictions. The difference now is that it is countywide policy.

You can still buy stuff from the boosters.

And the athletes, thank goodness, can still bring their Gatorade.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Does Blogging Hurt Community?

The Flier last week pulled together an impressive package of stories about what people think our fair town these days. One that seemed to stay with us profiled CA Board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart.

Here's the passage that caught our eye:

"Rouse designed Columbia's village centers, pathway system, neighborhood pools, interfaith centers -- even its shared mailboxes -- in such a way as to encourage face-to-face encounters between residents.

"But that intimacy might be lost as people focus more of their attention on technology and cars instead of neighbors and community, said Atkinson-Stewart, who lives in Owen Brown.

"For example, people today prefer to voice their opinions and concerns in blogs rather than speaking to one another, as they used to, she said. Residents also are concerned about crime and therefore tend to spend less time interacting with neighbors."

The first time we read that we nodded our head in knowing agreement. We recognized something about ourselves there. There can be a detachment in all this electronic communication. And surely, the blogosphere can be a rough place at times, the very antithesis of civility in Howard.

But the more we thought about it, the more we realized how much blogging has allowed us to re-engage in our community. Our mailbox is now full of notices about Christmas cookie swaps, movie nights and blogger meet-ups (we really really do want to get out to one of those, we promise!)We converse regularly with neighbors we might never have met before. We hear different viewpoints.

Plenty of bloggers out there working very hard to build community -- just spending a little time tooling around the pages of Hometown Columbia, as an example.

Sometimes being online is the best way to discover the world offline.