It sounds like great news -- Columbia's Rouse Co. Foundation will grow to nearly four times its size with a $20 million gift that's part of the company's $7.2 billion sale to a Chicago real estate investment trust.

But Howard County community leaders still worry that the sale to General Growth Properties Inc. means that Rouse's longstanding role as the community's largest corporate benefactor will wane in ways that such a big donation can't offset.

Rouse executives and employees "have really contributed a lot of themselves to helping a lot of nonprofits in the community prosper," said Victor A. Broccolino, president and chief executive of Howard County General Hospital. If Rouse closes its corporate headquarters on Columbia's lakefront and dismisses employees, "that is going to be a huge loss," said Broccolino. "There are very bright people who have helped guide these different community organizations," he said.

Rouse officials, who kept the sale secret as it was being negotiated, remain tight-lipped about details of the foundation gift as well. Margaret Mauro, executive director of the foundation, didn't return calls this week.

The foundation is one of several tax-exempt nonprofit entities that embody the public-spirited, progressive vision of company founder James W. Rouse. In 1969, Rouse established the Columbia Foundation, Maryland's first community foundation. And in 1982, Rouse and his wife, Patty, created the Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation, which invests in affordable housing for low-income families.

According to the Rouse Foundation's 2002 IRS filing, the most recent available online, the organization made grants of $1.26 million to Central Maryland organizations that worked in the foundation's four areas of interest -- education, the arts, human services and community enrichment. Foundation officers include Mauro; Anthony W. Deering, Rouse's chief executive and chairman; Alton J. Scavo, Rouse executive vice president and director of development; and Patricia H. Dayton, senior vice president and treasurer.

The foundation reported the total value of its assets in 2002 as $7.09 million. Much was in the form of corporate stock, with a fair market value of $6.7 million, according to the 2002 IRS filing. Cash and savings made up the remainder.

The foundation's net income for that year totaled $3.85 million, largely in Rouse common stock, with an additional $193,110 in dividends and interest from securities.

Adding $20 million to the organization's assets makes the Rouse Foundation by far the second biggest charity in Howard, said Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive of the Horizon Foundation, the county's biggest nonprofit, with assets of $76 million.

"I think it's a marvelous contribution to the community," Krieg said.

Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College, said that when she sought a major gift from the Rouse Foundation for the college's building campaign, she was warned that Deering was inaccessible.

"I never found that to be true," said Duncan, who received a pledge of $350,000 in 2003 to help fund HCC's new arts and humanities building.

The long list of grants made by the foundation has included several Baltimore institutions, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, the foundation contributed $35,000 to the Arc of Howard County Inc., a group serving people with developmental disabilities.

Jackie Ring, deputy executive director of the agency, said the foundation's involvement with the Arc dated back 25 years or more and started with donations to buy Christmas gifts for clients.

"They provided great leadership, with [Rouse] people serving on our board of directors and on our finance committee," she said. "The Rouse Co. is a good corporate neighbor and friend to the nonprofits."

The news about the foundation gift says "they're going to be in the region," said Barbara K. Lawson, president and chief executive of the Columbia Foundation. Still, she questioned to what extent the benevolent corporate citizenship could continue once Rouse no longer exists. The sale, subject to approval by stockholders, is expected to be finalized by the year's end.

"I don't know what the implications are," she said. "It feels a little bit sad."