Used-car lot envisioned for old Freestate track

September 07, 1995|By Dan Morse and Ivan Penn | Dan Morse and Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writers

The race horses have long since gone, but Mustangs -- along with Toyotas, Hondas and hundreds of other used cars -- may soon be arriving at the former Freestate racetrack just south of Savage.

Circuit City, a nationwide electronics retailer that recently entered the used-car business, wants to open a used-car mega-store on the site. The company this summer sent a letter of intent to Freestate's developers, indicating interest in purchasing 46 acres of the 108-acre site, said John Breitenberg, a Maryland attorney representing the retailer.

"It is a piece of property that we are very much interested in," said Paul Rakov, a spokesman at Circuit City headquarters in Richmond, Va.

The chain's used-car outlets, called CarMax, feature 500-car lots that are so large that golf carts are used to chauffeur shoppers. So far, there are four CarMax lots -- two in Atlanta and one each in Richmond, Va., and Raleigh, N.C.

For years, Freestate developers have tried to lure retailers to the former track on U.S. 1 just south of Md. 32. Area residents have expressed particular interest in a large grocery store, but yesterday some Savage-area community leaders acknowl

edged that a large retailer -- such as CarMax -- might attract other stores to the site.

"It sounds like it might be a good way to get this development going," said Bill Waff, president of the Savage Community Association.

One major problem in bringing a CarMax outlet to Freestate is Circuit City's concern over Maryland blue laws that prohibit car sales on Sunday. Montgomery and Prince George counties are the only jurisdictions in the state that allow Sunday car sales, said Joseph Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association.

Mr. Rakov, of Circuit City, declined to say if changing the state blue laws is a prerequisite for his company opening a used-car outlet at Freestate. But he did say: "Car sales are a 7-day-a-week operation."

Added Paul Price, senior vice president for Lincoln Property Co., the site developers dealing with Circuit City: "They are very serious, but the blue laws are out there."

Changes in the Sunday car sales laws -- even changes specific to Howard County -- would have to be made through the General Assembly, said Dennis R. Schrader, a Howard County Council member who represents the southeast part of the county.

In the past, the state new-car dealers association has opposed changes to the blue laws because it is difficult to sell cars on Sunday when dealers cannot make credit and title checks, Mr. Carroll said.

But for now, Circuit City seems to be going ahead with its plans. The company has offered to bus Savage-area groups to its Richmond store -- with lunch on the company.

"They are trying to get us to go," said Patsy Yingling, president of the North Laurel Civic Association. She is concerned that lights in the proposed car lot might be too bright.

Ms. Yingling said a group was planning to go Sept. 16, but the trip fell apart when group members had other commitments.

Until it closed five years ago, the former harness racetrack attracted nightly crowds of as many as 5,000 to 10,000 people to the 2,200-resident community of Savage. Since then, Savage and North Laurel residents have awaited development of the site.

Although there are major retail centers and strip malls in Columbia and to the south on the Prince George's County side of Laurel, there are no large shopping centers in the Savage-Laurel area. New home construction in the North Laurel area over the past five years has increased the demand for nearby shopping, and residents particularly want a major grocery store, bank, movie theater and restaurants to open on the property.

The project has been repeatedly delayed by difficulties in finding a major retailer.

In June 1994, Freestate's former developer and manager, Bruce Jaffe, of the Silver Spring-based Sanford companies, left the project because of conflicts with the property's owner, Skopbank, a Finland-based bank that operates out of New York rTC City in the United States. Then Lincoln Properties, of Roslyn, Va., took over the project as the new developer, drawing interest from such retailers such as the Safeway grocery chain, but never signing a contract.

In August 1994, anxieties over the future of the site turned to fear for some Savage and North Laurel residents when they first heard talk that the Washington Redskins football team might be considering Freestate for a new 78,600-seat stadium.

The Redskins and Freestate owners quickly passed that off as rumor, saying the site was too small for a professional sports complex.

New hopes of a shopping center emerged in May of this year when an official at Lincoln Properties said the company had landed four stores for the Freestate development, but so far no contracts have been signed.

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