Residents of Owings Mills must hardly be able to believe the news in their community in the last few weeks. Not long after the perennially delayed Owings Mills Metro Centre redevelopment got back off the ground with construction work on what is to be Baltimore County's largest library and a community college branch, the owner of the long-suffering Owings Mills Mall announced a $64 million plan to turn it into a new open-air shopping center. And just days after that, the massively popular New York-based grocery chain Wegmans announced it would be the anchor tenant of another town center-style development just two miles away at the site of the defunct Solo Cup factory. If the economy is weak, you wouldn't know it based on what's happening in northwestern Baltimore County.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who used to represent the area as a councilman, is thrilled. The new councilwoman, Vicki Almond, is thrilled. By all accounts, residents of the area, while concerned about all the traffic this might cause, are also thrilled. Not so thrilled, though, are the developers behind each of the individual projects, which suddenly face more competition for consumer dollars. They are all represented by top-flight development lawyers, notably including former County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who is working on the Wegmans project, and they could come into conflict over one major detail left to be ironed out: zoning for the Solo Cup property.
On the issues of traffic and the viability of so much new retail in such a small area, county officials say they believe the developments pose relatively few problems. The county is already seeking state funding for improvements to the intersection of Reisterstown and Painters Mill roads. And the Owings Mills area, despite being one of the county's two designated growth areas, along with White Marsh, has long been underserved by retail. The developments there can draw not just from the immediate surrounding neighborhoods but also from Pikesville and Carroll County, via I-795, and from the Liberty Road corridor once the extension of Owings Mills Boulevard is completed. Plus, the Metro stop provides access to even more consumers.
But the rezoning for Solo Cup does represent something of a policy shift for Baltimore County, and it deserves more attention than it would typically get in a case where the local council member supports rezoning, as Ms. Almond does. For years, Baltimore County economic development officials have been loath to allow land designated for manufacturing, as the Solo property is, to be downzoned for commercial development. The theory is that manufacturing sites are relatively rare, and once given up they are never upzoned to allow industry again. And manufacturing generally provides the greatest economic impact for the community.
At the Solo Cup property, for example, the conversion to commercial may yield more total jobs — Wegmans alone expects to hire more than the 540 employees lost at the Solo plant, and that doesn't even count ancillary development on the site. But it is unlikely that those jobs will pay as well or have as large a spillover effect on other businesses in the area.
A spokesman for Mr. Kamenetz says the executive is focused on the redevelopment of Baltimore County manufacturing but sees the greatest potential for it in and around Sparrows Point, in conjunction with the expansion of the Port of Baltimore. The Solo site, county officials say, is too small and in an area that is unlikely to appeal to another industrial tenant.
But that reflects an old, heavy-industry-centric view of manufacturing that doesn't necessarily conform with the economic opportunities of today. That site may no longer make sense as a place to manufacture paper cups, but it could, perhaps, be a good location for a biotech facility.
The issue here is about more than whether Owings Mills will get a Wegmans. It's about whether the county can provide residents with an opportunity for family-sustaining jobs near where they live. Owings Mills could certainly do worse than Wegmans — it is frequently ranked among the nation's best places to work, and the chain's existing location in Hunt Valley has been extremely successful. But county officials should take pause to make sure they couldn't do better.