Proposed Wal-Mart stirs fear, anger in Bowleys Quarters

Discord over plans leads to rancor in residents' group

March 20, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

With spring in the air, Baltimore County's waterfront hamlet of Bowleys Quarters is stirring from its winter's sleep. Boats encased in plastic wrap against biting blasts from the Chesapeake Bay are peeled and prepared for paint jobs. A jogger bobs along a two-lane road on a brilliant morning.

It's an idyllic setting, where $500,000 homes nestle on bucolic creeks next to more modest dwellings in a community that boasts a certain sophistication, an air of nautical elan, compared to other nearby, less prosperous east-side neighbors. But all is not as peaceful as it seems.

A Wal-Mart might be built on the banks of Frog Mortar Creek. And that spells trouble in Bowleys Quarters.

The impending arrival of the retail outlet has sparked fears that small merchants would be driven out of business, traffic congestion would worsen, and the sensitive marine environment would be harmed.

At the same time, the project has caused an ugly divide among the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association's directors.

The store would be built adjacent to Carroll Island Plaza, a struggling shopping center at the doorstep to Bowleys Quarters. It was proposed by one of the region's most prominent developers, David S. Cordish of Baltimore, who says the Wal-Mart "is a good thing for the community. The area desperately needs an anchor."

Cordish, who owns Carroll Island Plaza and 20 surrounding acres, said he will work with community leaders to upgrade the area and have a "first-class" structure built.

But with the prospect of thousands of Wal-Mart customers descending on the area each week, residents fear nightmarish traffic congestion on a busy peninsula whose main access road is a two-lane thoroughfare that feeds about 2,000 homes and 13 commercial marinas. Other residents are concerned about the environmental impact the project will have on Frog Mortar Creek, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay.

Still, some merchants and community members say it's useless to oppose Wal-Mart - an Arkansas-based chain with 1,700 stores across the nation and annual sales that run into the billions of dollars.

"You can't fight Wal-Mart. That store will mean the end of my business," said Ken Hoffman, owner of Carroll Island Hardware, a store he opened 27 years ago in Carroll Island Plaza.

At the Birdie Boutique, another plaza tenant, sentiments run the same. "This shopping center is a ghost town as it is," said store clerk Rachel Myers. "Wal-Mart will close all the little people down."

At least five businesses have closed and left the plaza during the past several years, including a Safeway supermarket that packed up last year with two years remaining on its lease. Others, who say they face rent increases and little hope of drawing new customers, are reportedly preparing to abandon the plaza.

But in what some view as an even uglier side to the Wal-Mart's expected arrival next year, some board members at the local improvement association have turned against one of their own, an outspoken former association president who directed a profanity-laced tirade at Cordish's representative during a meeting last month on the project.

Thomas Lehner, the former president, said that because of the incident - which he said he regrets and for which he has apologized to the board - he was "uninvited" from a board meeting tonight at Cordish's office at the Power Plant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

To some, that's not enough. Some board members, Lehner and others say, have thought of having him removed from the board.

Cordish said during an interview that Lehner was "drunk or whatever, he accosted my man at the meeting. He laid his hands on him, tried to beat him up." In a letter to the board president, Michael Vivirito, Cordish said his employee, Matthew Copeland, was "physically threatened[,] literally having to flee for [his] safety."

The meeting occurred Feb. 12, when Copeland met with the 15-member board. According to six people present, Copeland presented an outline of the Wal-Mart plan but could not answer numerous questions posed to him by board members.

"Tom just got frustrated; he popped off like I've never seen him do before," said board member Phillip Edwards.

But Edwards and other board members deny that Lehner was drinking or placed his hands on Copeland.

"Tom used terrible language, but never did he even get close enough to Mr. Copeland to put his hands on him," said board member Janet Walper.

"Copeland came to our meeting unable to answer questions and that got Tom Lehner angry. Never did he threaten Copeland, never did he touch him," said board member Andy Jones.

Police were not called and no charges were filed. Copeland, an undergraduate engineering student employed by Cordish, declined to comment.

Lehner lives with his wife, a public school teacher, and two sons on Frog Mortar Creek south of the proposed Wal-Mart site. A carpenter, he has been outspoken on community issues.

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