HOW EASY IT WOULD be to demagogue the issue. Here's a private developer asking for a preposterous $300 million in aid from the state and Montgomery County to build, of all things, a giant mall.
Surely wealthy Montgomery and the wealthy developers can afford to underwrite this project themselves. Why should the state help out one of the most affluent subdivisions in the nation?
Besides, isn't this the same subdivision that demagogued big-time on the stadiums debate in Annapolis last session? The same subdivision that seems to make it a practice to denounce and deny aid for impoverished Baltimore?
Paranoid and isolated
Yes, indeed. And yet there was a prominent Baltimore legislator, in a position of power where he could effectively block state assistance for the American Dream mall in Silver Spring, recently voicing support for the project.
That could mark a real turning point -- but only if Montgomery politicians recognize it as a chance to set aside their paranoia and unenlightened parochialism.
Until now, the plot line in Annapolis has been for Montgomery legislators to rail against anything good for Baltimore because it wins them support back home. Then they turn around and whine about the need to pump tens of millions into well-off Montgomery for roads and schools.
The result has been an isolation of Montgomery County in the State House. On major issues, Montgomery politicos are ignored.
That started to change this past session, when a handful of Montgomery lawmakers had the courage to support Baltimore's football stadium, as did Montgomery's chief executive, Douglas Duncan.
Equally encouraging for these risk-taking politicians was the quid pro quo that led to $35 million in school aid for Montgomery, more road money and funds for a convention center as well as initial funds for the American Dream mall.
This positive result showed that cooperation in Annapolis can work out well for Montgomery.
Next year, Montgomery's lawmakers could see matters from a different perspective. They will seek gobs of state aid for the American Dream mall. Representatives of that affluent county will beseech lawmakers from a cash-strapped city and middle-class suburbs for help. Surprisingly, they are likely to get support.
A sensible dream
That's because the American Dream project makes sense. Not $300 million worth of sense, but perhaps half that much over time. The state and county governments have already put $53 million into the development and Montgomery has committed to spending another $64 million. A multi-year investment on top of that isn't outrageous.
Here's why. This is not just another mall. The Ghermezian brothers envision a giant entertainment and retail complex that would be a multi-dimensional magnet for tourists and local consumers.
They already have built two such malls, one in Edmonton, Canada, and the other outside of Minneapolis. Both have been huge successes. The Edmonton mall has a $1.2 billion economic impact on the city.
This project -- which is being billed as ''the largest urban retail, recreation and entertainment center in the U.S.A.'' -- is projected to generate nearly 13,000 permanent jobs and between $45 million and $79 million in tax revenue for the state and county annually.
With such a huge potential payback, Del. Howard P. Rawlings concluded that a state contribution would be money well spent. He chairs the House budget panel, but he also represents one of the city's poorest districts. By simply opposing this project, he could easily kill any hopes for state aid.
But Mr. Rawlings understands that what's good for Montgomery will have spillover impact elsewhere.
Drawing tens of thousands of tourists from Washington and Virginia into the American Dream will encourage more tourism elsewhere in the state, especially in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It is a synergy that Baltimore-area lawmakers understand.
''I'm not going to be as narrow-minded as some of my colleagues in Montgomery County'' were in the bitter stadium battles, Mr. Rawlings said. ''I'll look at the broader state and local issues.''
There's a message there for Montgomery politicians. They'd be making a mistake to ignore it.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 10/06/96