Joke or jab? Business owners protest 'Boomtown' remark WEST COUNTY -- Crofton * Odenton * Fort Meade * Gambrills

June 23, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Thirty business owners are petitioning County Executive Robert R. Neall to oust the chairman of a committee working to design a new Odenton over his comments about "bulldozing" the Boomtown strip.

The group said Alfred A. Shehab's comment "degraded" the neighborhood, once known for bawdy peep shows and massage parlors. Community leaders are trying to revitalize the strip under the name "North Odenton."

"I suggest to you that anyone with such a narrow-minded attitude about change should not be sitting on a committee trying to bring about these changes," the letter addressed to Mr. Neall says.

Mr. Shehab, a retired Army colonel and longtime Odenton resident who has been involved in many committees, said yesterday that he has repeated the comment about bulldozing a few times in jest.

"While I am given to expressing myself freely, what is important is the tone of my voice and whether a smile accompanies it," Mr. Shehab said, adding that he has no plans to step down unless requested to do so by Mr. Neall.

"I had to laugh," he said of the letter. "It's very damning. . . . The whole thing has been blown out of proportion."

Louise Hayman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Neall, said the county executive is looking into complaints made in the letter.

The Town Center committee, made up of residents, developers, business owners and county planners, has been working for more than 18 months to draft guidelines for building in the 218-acre town center and its periphery.

The group has not met since November and has missed its deadline by several months, mainly because several departments have been reorganized, including planning and zoning.

ZTC The letter to Mr. Neall was written by William P. Chewning, a major Odenton property owner who rents to several business on Route 175, the heart of what was Boomtown near the main entrance to Fort Meade.

In the letter, Mr. Chewning complains about two paragraphs at the bottom of a story that appeared in the Maryland Gazette, saying Mr. Shehab "still chuckles when he hears the North Odenton moniker." The story then quotes Mr. Shehab: "But it's still Boomtown and always will be. I know what they can do with it -- bulldoze it."

In an interview, Mr. Shehab said he was referring to an October Town Center meeting in which the "bulldoze" reference came up. "I was joking, but I guess that is something a businessman doesn't understand."

At the October meeting, several business owners objected to proposed upgrades to Route 175 that included a median strip.

Dennis Watkins, owner of Gemini Tattoo Boutique, complained that upscale homeowners were flocking to Odenton and trying to push established businesses out. The only way to satisfy them, he said, would be to get rid of the strip. "We do have a shabby image," he said, according to a tape recording of the meeting. "One way to cure it would be to bulldoze it and start over."

"I got up and said that's the best idea I've heard all evening," Mr. Shehab recalled yesterday. "I think he was laughing," he said of Mr. Watkins. "One of their businessmen wouldn't say that in all seriousness."

But Mr. Chewning said he doesn't believe Mr. Shehab was joking. "It is time Colonel Shehab be put in his place," the letter continues. "He should keep in mind that it was his culture, being military, that enticed entrepreneurs in the 1900s to building a place like Boomtown."

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