NFL looms big over a suburban town that's small at heart LAUREL: neither here nor there

January 14, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Laurel -- On Main Street, the sighting of a TV news truck is news. They were talking about it at the hardware store and the coffee place across the street.

Everyone, of course, knows what the truck is doing here. It's part of the sudden influx -- and a mere trickle of what perhaps is in store for the future -- that began when Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke announced last month that he plans to move his football team and some 78,600 traffic-snarling, tailgate-partying, trash-littering fans to town.

Well! Isn't that a fine way to make acquaintance!

Hereabouts, you don't just barge in. You preface your arrival with a wave from across the street or an I-knew-your-mother or something. You let the townfolk look you over a bit when you pick your kid up after school or at the Denny's on Sunday where everyone goes after church. If you ever want to be treated like you belong, that is.

The almighty NFL franchise -- or even the chance of getting one -- has reduced major cities like Baltimore and St. Louis to unabashed civic groveling. But in these parts, the prospect of playing host to a major sports team is being treated with the kind of suspicion small towns reserve for outsiders.

Ironically, what has attracted Mr. Cooke to the town is exactly what attracted many of the same people who would keep him out: Location. Location. Location. Almost equidistant between two metropolises, Laurel has always seemed neither here (Baltimore) nor there (Washington). Call it boring, consider it a place you pass through to get somewhere better, but that's the way some people would like to keep it.

"People are very protective of sort of the atmosphere of the town. This feels like an invasion a bit," says Dawn Nakroshis, whose family has lived in Laurel for several generations and who is actively fighting Mr. Cooke's move. "This is our little town, and we feel he's going to run roughshod over it."

"If someone had told me a spaceship from another planet had just landed over there, I couldn't have been more surprised," says Jeanne Mignon, who, like many of her neighbors, moved into the new Russett residential community just outside Laurel precisely because it was so controlled. She, too, has been organizing neighbors to fight the proposed stadium. "I've been saying, this is a heck of a way to meet your neighbors."

Even as Laurel has grown -- this Prince George's County city has sprawled to the point that parts of adjacent Anne Arundel and Howard counties are considered part of "Greater Laurel -- it retains that small-town mind-set. It is perhaps the one shared characteristic of what residents call "the two Laurels."

Tale of two Laurels

There is old Laurel with its straightforward streets -- A, B, C, followed by Fourth, Fifth and Sixth -- and its Main Street butchers, bankers and barbers, and its porch-wrapped and pillar-entranced historic homes. Then there is new Laurel, indistinguishable from any other suburban spread of strip shopping malls, McFood outlets and instant communities where the homes are identified less by style, say, "Victorian" or even "ranch," than by builder -- "Oh, that's a 'Ryland.' "

In both Laurels, though, opponents of the stadium idea have been meeting over coffee and shared indignation, uniting to fight the intrusion. While many do support the move -- and pro-stadium petitions are a common sight around town -- they seem outnumbered. A recent Washington Post poll found 44 percent of Marylanders oppose the Laurel stadium, while 29 percent approve, a fairly constant split when the poll was broken down to the individual counties that would be most affected by the move: Prince George's, Anne Arundel (where the stadium would actually be located) and Howard.

A center of nothingness

That's the irony of Laurel: It's at the center, all right, but what it's central to is so much of that nothingness that is modern-day suburbia. It's ex-urbia to the extreme, the edgiest of edge cities. It's about location and not much else. People don't move here for jobs or culture or family ties as much as they do for convenience.

"I wound up moving here for business reasons -- because it was halfway between Baltimore and Washington," says Realtor Eddie Keel, a 27-year resident. "Now I think it's Baltimore and Washington that are becoming suburbs of Laurel."

People say things like that with a just-joking laugh, but true civic boosterism is alive and well here. There are several active business and civic groups in town, and it's a big deal to serve on the volunteer fire-rescue squad. (Even Mayor Joe Robison belongs, and his wife is a dispatcher.)

Much of the civic-minded attention focuses on Main Street -- a slow-paced amble of banks rather than ATMs, a pharmacy with a real soda fountain rather than another Rite-Aid. And although it has a healthy share of antique stores and even a sports bar, Main Street hasn't been "kountry-krafted" and potpourri-ed and otherwise duded up in the ersatz fashion of new "olde townes" designed for tourists more than residents.

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