Guidebooks recommend following the young crowd to find the best nightlife in an unfamiliar town.

On a day with no concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, heeding that advice in Columbia would likely deliver visitors to a destination in Ellicott City, Maple Lawn or some outlying city area miles from downtown.

That’s not saying there aren’t things to do in downtown Columbia after 8 p.m. Columbia Association schedules lakefront concerts and movies; Union Jack’s pub provides a relaxed atmosphere for gathering before, after or in lieu of a concert; Seasons 52’s happy hour gets good reviews; and the lakefront restaurants draw consistent crowds.

For the Sinatra set it may well be “My Kind of Town,” but it leaves the Peggy Lees of the world asking “Is That All There Is?” Seen from the eyes of a 20-something, those offerings can’t help but appear a bit stodgy.

As revitalization and redevelopment begin to transform Columbia’s downtown, the young professionals who work there and the city’s master developer alike are anxiously awaiting the tipping point that will shore up the elusive final pillar of that long-touted live-work-play tripod.

“What’s missing is a Main Street type of area where there are multiple late-night venues and hangout spots with different types of events on offer,” said Dave Sciamarelli, immediate past chair of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce’s (HCCC) Young Professionals Network (YPN) and a real estate adviser for MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services in Baltimore. “There are only one or two places downtown that have a dartboard or a pool table, and when you look at all the other places in that area, there is nothing to do there but drink.”

Here, There, Everywhere

Scott Ewart, a Columbia-based website designer and software developer, counts Nottingham’s Tavern among his clients. Located on Stanford Boulevard near Dobbin Center, the tavern caters to the young crowd with live music, karaoke and private parties, and has big screen televisions and billiard tables.
“If you look where the young crowd is going, they’re going to the places like Nottingham’s, or Looney’s Pub in Maple Lawn, the Greene Turtle, Sonoma’s Bar & Grill in Owen Brown, Second Chance Saloon in Oakland Mills, and maybe places like Frisco’s Tap House, the Columbia Ale House, Jailbreak Brewing in Laurel or Main Street Ellicott City,” he said.

These venues are literally all over the map geographically, but they all manage to pull in capacity crowds that skew heavily toward the young urban professional demographic.

“Most of the [outdoor ball fields and indoor courts] where young professionals blow off steam seem to be located just outside the village centers and close to some of these popular night spots,” Ewart said. “That collocation helps, but what these places really benefit from is things like live bands, karaoke, and the fact that they’re really, really good at marketing themselves on social media.”
And while it looks like many millennials may be delaying car ownership and don’t enjoy the most efficient public transportation network to reach these places, he added, that hurdle is easily overcome these days thanks to services such as Lyft and Uber, which can be relatively inexpensive if several riders split the fare.

Imagine several of these establishments on the same street in a walkable downtown, throw in a new entertainment option or two, and it’s easy to envision the vibrant scene that could unfold.

“Young professionals in general don’t spend a lot of nights in Columbia, even if they work there,” Sciamarelli said. “That trend will continue until someone is able to create an area where lots of people are going out three times a week because they actually have places to hang out … where they can be interactive with others.”

True Believers

According to Vanessa Rodriguez, spokesperson for downtown Columbia’s master developer, the Howard Hughes Corp., the creation of that type of atmosphere is already happening through the slow change occurring downtown.

“Right now concerts [at Merriweather] are the main reason to come,” she said. “Howard Hughes is trying to give people a reason to get here earlier and stay later after concerts, and maybe consider downtown as a place to go when there isn’t a concert. Our goal is to develop a place where visitors can park once and experience things for a whole day or an evening without having their experience broken up.”

Building the mixed-use Metropolitan Downtown Columbia was one of the first steps taken toward that goal.

“The true believers in a more vibrant future for downtown are already in place and love their life in the apartments there,” Rodriguez said. “They want more connectivity, they’re starving for more retail, and it’s now beginning to come on line as we work through the follow-on phases [of redevelopment].”

The Wecker Hospitality Group’s recently announced plans to open a concept restaurant called Cured and a live music lounge called 18th & 21st in One Merriweather by the end of the year has created a lot of buzz.

“Steve Wecker’s concept brings that next generation of experience that we’ve been looking for in downtown,” Rodriguez said, adding that Howard Hughes is hoping to make another major announcement in the near future concerning the next additions that will beef up the downtown’s nightlife scene.

Designing the Future

One of the biggest draws for millennials is live music, acknowledged HCCC Programs and Strategic Initiatives Vice President Kristi Simon.

“Unless you make a place for them to go in Columbia, they’ll simply go to Baltimore City,” she said. “Downtown Columbia isn’t a destination for millennials yet; areas are disjointed, it’s not easily walkable, and it’s hard to cross Little Patuxent Parkway. We know we have a lot of [vibrancy] in the Downtown Plan; we’re just in between phases waiting for everything to get built.”

Few young professionals under 30 can afford to live in Columbia, Sciamarelli acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be things for them to do downtown, particularly if they work there.”

The retail landscape has evolved to include entertainment, Rodriguez said, while culture and food remain important components to activate interest and attract more people to an area.

“The evolution of downtown Columbia will include all of this, but right now our challenging connection is walkability,” she said. “Millennials and young professionals value their time; we know they want to work upstairs and walk downstairs to have fun. It’s the fabric of connectivity that we’re in the process of creating. I believe we’re seeing the first steps toward tipping the iceberg and moving closer to that vibrant downtown atmosphere we’ve envisioned together as a community.”

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