Smaller stores see threat

Revitalization:Talk of improving U.S. 1 worries owners of `mom-pop' businesses that have been there for generations.

November 14, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

All the recent talk of revitalizing U.S. 1 in Howard County irritates Dan Selke, who knows when the people in suits complain about "blight," they have his roadside business in mind.

Hubcap City in Jessup beckons customers with hub caps dangling from a steel gate and a garage-like building painted bright yellow and blue.

"You can fix up U.S. 1 without getting rid of the small mom-pop stores like ours that have built this county," said Selke, decked out in a T-shirt and black dungarees. "But the big pretty boys who have all the money want to come in with their hi-tech businesses and get rid of us. That's not right."

Selke's stance underscores the challenges that county officials, business owners and community leaders face as they discuss ways to spruce up and economically develop a corridor that nearly everyone agrees needs help. This month, county officials met with Prince George's County officials who share an interest in U.S. 1; a revitalization committee composed mainly of Howard County business owners also was launched.

Just defining blight is contentious. As Selke's comments illustrate, beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder.

"OK, I'll admit that the colors outside are a bit hazardous to the eyes," Selke acknowledged. "It probably was a bad decision to paint it that way -- but I really do think that we have some character. We're not like the rest of these businesses in the planned community that look alike. We stand out. We're different."

Selke is one of many business owners who say they fear that larger companies may want to replace them on U.S. 1. Clashes between bigger businesses lured to the county for economic reasons and older establishments that have been there for generations are likely to arise with several efforts under way to map the future of U.S. 1.

"We don't want to tell the older establishments what to do," said Steven Adler, managing partner of Savage Mill and a member of a newly formed organization called the Route 1 Revitalization Committee.

"There are some obvious eyesores, but there are also some obvious things that could be done to make Route 1 more attractive," he said.

Committee members have suggested steps from planting trees to organizing cleanups.

Adler, who joined other owners who do business on and near U.S. 1 at a meeting convened last week by County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a District 3 Democrat, suggested providing tax incentives to smaller establishments, such as Hubcap City to help them make repairs. "It's in everyone's best interest if Route 1 looks great," Adler said.

Randy's California Inn, a restaurant on U.S. 1 at Whiskey Bottom Road in North Laurel, has been a target of criticism similar to that directed at Hubcap City. "I don't really know what all the talk is about," said Randy, who identified himself as the owner but refused to provide his last name. "I try to stay away from it all."

Once a popular place for dinner and entertainment, Randy's has few customers these days, said longtime community residents.

The weeds surrounding the restaurant have grown high, and the sidewalk is unpaved.

"I stopped going there a long time ago," said North Laurel resident Denise Thomas.

"It used to look nice, but it doesn't anymore. If a place doesn't look nice on the outside, it really is not a draw."

Critics fault the county for allowing properties to fall into disrepair.

"Howard County is the only county that's afraid to enforce its own rules," said North Laurel community activist Donna Thewes. "If a business is in violation, it should be shut down immediately."

Thewes concedes that revitalization is a "tough issue."

"You want your small mom-pop stores," she said, "but you also want businesses in the area to look cosmetically appealing. People won't spend their money in places that look trashy."

During the past few years, CarMax, a used-car outlet, and Weis Supermarkets have located in the North Laurel area, which has encouraged other big businesses to move into the corridor.

"There's a lot of people who would be willing to spend their money in North Laurel, if nice businesses came to the area -- but for such a long time, North Laurel has been viewed as the dumping ground for Howard County," Thewes said, noting the many industrial parks that have recently moved to U.S. 1.

Selke said that he would welcome the opportunity to sit down with business owners and county officials to try to head off potential conflicts over the image of his property.

"We're interested in finding out if the county has a plan for helping small businesses like ours," he said.

"Maybe they can provide tax incentives, or dump some mulch outside of our property -- do something other than criticize us.

"We don't have the resources that these big new owners have, but some of us have been here for decades. We want to be a part of any discussions to fix up Route 1, too."

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