The Burgeoning Columbia Market Steps Out of the Shadows of Baltimore, D.C.

As real estate becomes more operational, a trend has emerged of major investors migrating away from big metros into secondary and tertiary markets. Occasionally, those markets move out of the shadows of their larger neighbors and acquire their own identity. Enter Columbia, Maryland, which initially attained national attention and acclaim as one of the first master-planned communities in the United States. Columbia is now in the midst of a major transformation.

Built from the ground up in then-bucolic Howard County, Columbia was founded by developer James Rouse in 1967. Strategically located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the now 53-year-old community is blossoming with its own talent creators, talent attractors and 14 million square feet of new live-work-play development in a downtown transformed by The Howard Hughes Corp., a successor to The Rouse Co.

The beginnings of Downtown Columbia’s emergence include the Merriweather District, which opens this spring. The first of three neighborhoods planned for downtown Columbia, the Merriweather District is being developed as a regional hub of culture and commerce.

Kevin Wille
Executive Vice President,

Talent creators

The Howard County market is already home to cybersecurity incubators and cyber-focused venture capitalists like DataTribe and AllegisCyber. These companies consistently house and fund entrepreneurs developing innovative approaches to address crucial issues on the fast-changing cybersecurity landscape. Success stories coming out of these incubators have huge growth potential, and after they leave the nest, many of them find permanent homes in downtown Columbia.

James Bahr

Downtown Columbia’s Merriweather District is creating an ecosystem where young cyber firms and tech companies have the opportunity to grow. For example, cybersecurity firm Attila Security Inc. announced in October that it raised up to $4 million to support its future growth out into its own space. Previously backed by seed funding from investors including DataTribe, Attila is also a member of the DataTribe’s cyber startup studio.

Shortly following this announcement, Atilla signed a 4,600-square-foot lease within Downtown Columbia’s Merriweather District at 10960 Grantchester Way. The firm is now home to 18 employees since its founding with hopes to expand the team to upwards of 25 members.

Ben Caffey
Research Analyst,

Another success story coming from local incubators and venture capitalists that found a home in Downtown Columbia is Prevailion, a cybersecurity firm that developed an approach that provides intelligence to a company about whether a data compromise is affecting a third-party it works with.

After winning DataTribe’s “DataTribe Challenge” the prior year, the company’s potential growth was evident and led to additional investment. In July 2019, the company closed on $10 million in Series A funding led by AllegisCyber and DataTribe. Prevailion was also a member of DataTribe’s startup network.

In the coming months, the company expanded from eight to 23 employees and left DataTribe’s space to find a home in Merriweather District.

Talent attractors

The transformation of downtown Columbia also caught the attention of one of the country’s fastest-growing cybersecurity companies. In the spring, Tenable will relocate from 7021 Columbia Gateway Drive into its new headquarters in Merriweather District. In December 2019, Howard Hughes Corp. delivered a 320,000-square-foot office building at 6100 Merriweather Drive, with nearly half of the property leased to the cybersecurity firm.

Downtown Columbia’s proximity to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, a built-in, highly skilled and educated workforce, and a new active downtown could make Columbia the next highly sought-after location for many like-minded companies. The Merriweather District is obviously realizing its vision as a center of commerce, and efforts to create a cultural ecosystem are already attracting attention in the marketplace.

Live-work-play development

The concept of live-work-play has become an integral focus of separating markets from other surrounding areas. Making a place unique is what keeps residents and workers happy and is the final piece to talent attractors and creators.

Howard Hughes Corp.’s efforts within Merriweather District have put the area in a position to become a true urban core and regional hub. At the heart of the district is the world-renowned and recently renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion, recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top amphitheaters in the country.

In addition, Merriweather District has attracted a handful of restaurants with roots within the Greater Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. areas. The largest of these restaurants is Busboys and Poets, a legendary coffee house, restaurant and bookstore that first opened in D.C in 2005. In September, an announcement was made for Busboys’ new location of 10,771 square feet within Merriweather District. This location is the company’s largest and farthest from Washington, D.C.

The proximity of Busboys and Poets will undoubtedly be an attraction for the workforce in the surrounding office buildings. It will also be a boon to the people moving into the 382 residences in the Juniper apartment development next door. Move-ins begin this month in Merriweather District’s first residential community.

A focus on a dynamic live-work-play destination with access to unique offerings and entertainment centered around a high-density neighborhood has attracted these investors to Columbia. These features feed talent attractors and creators, while all three facets build off each other. Howard Hughes has embraced Columbia, Maryland’s heritage as a planned community, capitalized on its outstanding location and is turning it into “The Third City” between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

— By Kevin Wille, Executive Vice President; James Bahr, Associate; and Ben Caffey, Research Analyst at CBRE. This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Southeast Real Estate Business.

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