Megastores vs. Main Street

Growth: Three plans to build megastores on the outskirts of Easton have prompted a call for a moratorium on retail development.

July 13, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Worried how its downtown business district would survive more megastores on the outskirts of the venerable Talbot County seat, Easton officials are considering a moratorium on national chains -- and sparking debate about blending the town's future with its past.

Timothy Dills, who has made his living and his reputation rehabilitating properties in the Eastern Shore's colonial capital, believes preserving its downtown's charm will assure the community of 11,000 a continued place on almost everyone's list of Top 10 American small towns.

But developer Walter Petrie, who has built shopping centers across the country, insists Easton is a growing commercial hub for a five-county region that needs the jobs, tax receipts and lower prices that would come with the 271,000-square-foot shopping center he wants to build along U.S. 50 for Home Depot and other warehouse-style retailers.

To give the town time to plot its future -- how much development is too much and what effect chain stores will have on older shopping centers and small businesses -- Town Councilman John Ford has proposed a three-month moratorium that would put the brakes on commercial development.

This includes three big-box projects that slow-growth advocates say would forever change the town.

`Last stand for Easton'

"As far as I'm concerned, this is Custer's Last Stand for Easton," says Dills. "If the town says yes to these projects, then we can't say no to anything else."

Petrie's planned Easton Commons shopping center spurred Lowe's, the North Carolina-based home improvement chain, to announce its interest in leaving a 45,000-square-foot home center along Easton Parkway, half a mile west of downtown, for a store four times larger adjacent to rival Home Depot on Route 50.

A third player is the Pennsylvania-based Harrison and Grass, which presented plans this spring for a residential, office and retail center on a 170-acre site across the parkway from the current Lowe's. The project would include a large home improvement or retail store, plus a theater complex and franchise restaurants.

Combined, the three projects would add more than 1 million square feet of retail space in Easton, says Charles Paul Goebel, an architect who is on the town's five-member planning commission. The panel recommended that the town council approve the moratorium and revise Easton's zoning ordinance to impose strict architectural and technical standards. Two public hearings have been set for next month.

"The fundamental question is whether Easton should have big-box development, but we need to look at this on a townwide basis, not let every development proposal be a test case," says Goebel. "It's not anti-growth; I'm against shoddy materials and sloppy planning."

Patience running out

Petrie, who blames town officials for holding up his project for nearly two years, has little patience for further delays.

"I've been at this for 35 years; I've never seen anything like it," Petrie says. "We're perfect for Easton; I've got all kinds of tenants who want to be here. I believe the people of Easton want us here."

Petrie says market research shows that 65 percent of Easton residents travel outside Talbot County at least twice a week to shop -- mostly to malls in Annapolis and Salisbury.

Vowing to play hardball, Petrie has hired a polling firm to gauge support for bringing national retailers to town. He has also hired a Bethesda lobbying firm to organize supporters and ensure a large turnout for next month's public hearings.

Brian Baugus, an unsuccessful GOP candidate for county commissioner who was his party's top vote-getter in last September'sprimary, said he was offered a temporary $1,000-a-week job to drum up support for the Easton Commons development.

"It was to do basic grass-roots organizing, knocking on doors and generating letters to the editor," Baugus says. "I turned it down because I've seen a lot of towns where the downtown is a shell and all the business is out on the nearest highway. With these stores, you end up looking like the places people left to move here. I'm not sure we want to look like every other place in the country."

Looking for consensus

Ray Stevens, a local Realtor who's handling negotiations for Pennsylvania's Harrison and Grass, says the firm has attempted to build consensus by meeting with downtown merchants and environmental groups. The company has made concessions, agreeing to diminish the bulk and scale of big retail stores by clustering them in the rear of the property away from Easton Parkway.

Still, Stevens acknowledges, half the battle may be convincing residents and town officials of what is self-evident to many business leaders -- that Easton is a commercial hub for the Mid- and Upper shores.

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