Fighting an image while fighting store


April 01, 2001|By NORRIS P. WEST

LIKE A REAL heavyweight slugfest, the ugly scrap over a South County supermarket has left the combatants bruised and battered.

If Muhammad Ali had naming rights, he might call it "The Fray by the Bay."

Residents of the once-idyllic waterfront town of Deale have gone into the championship rounds against Safeway, which ranks as a top contender among the nation's supermarket chains.

Some of their jabs have missed the mark. You can see their black eyes; some residents thumbed themselves by erecting a tasteless 12-foot effigy of County Executive Janet S. Owens and inaccurately characterizing the executive's position on growth.

And you can see the welts on the face of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who stepped into the ring during the late rounds, landing some overhand rights, but leaving his belly open for critical uppercuts.

Safeway emerged badly scarred. The chain has taken a pummeling because it refused to downsize its supermarket shopping center more than 12 percent. Although the community has grown enough over the years to support a 55,000 square-foot store and smaller shops, the chain's recalcitrance didn't help its local image.

And Ms. Owens has a lot of bruises. But backed against the ropes, the county executive came out swinging. She apparently landing a knockout blow against Safeway that could finally settle this matter.

To summarize the action, Safeway plans to build a 55,000-square-foot store as well as a shopping center in the town of Deale. The community once was known for watermen but now has more yuppies than guppies.

Deale isn't as small as it once was because people who moved there for the quiet, small town feel have made it less quiet and less small.

Deale residents, including recent immigrants, of course, have fought the Safeway and have called Ms. Owens the Queen of Sprawl. They spewed this vitriol at Ms. Owens, a South County native, for not standing with them in the fight against Safeway.

For the record, Ms. Owens has said repeatedly that she has tried to persuade Safeway to build a smaller store. But she argued from what appeared to be a position of weakness while the supermarket chain called the shots.

Safeway agreed in October to reduce the shopping center -- from 88,000 square feet to 77,000 square feet, but the supermarket would remain commonly large. "It was their last, best and final compromise," Ms. Owens told reporters.

Mr. Miller, never a friend of Ms. Owens, introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would kill the Safeway.

The bill threatens not only Safeway but also better economic development proposals such as the high-tech David Taylor Research Center, which would bring 730,000 square feet of office space and nearly 2,000 well-paying jobs to the former Navy site on the Severn River.

The senator, who has a large office building in Annapolis named after him, should know better than to draft such a broadly worded bill.

The county executive got herself into this fix, probably by going overboard with a pro-business attitude. It seems that she had the ammunition to force a compromise all along.

She couldn't fight Safeway effectively, however, when she was fighting her own image.

Ms. Owens spent the first two years of her administration trying to disprove the notion that she's anti-business -- which she needed to do for practical and political purposes.

On the practical side, the county's property tax cap forces the Owens administration to place a high premium on business tax revenue sources. The county needed to boost business tax income to compensate for flat residential property taxes. So although she entered office skeptical of the Arundel Mills mall, she's an avid Mills supporter now.

On the political front, critics thought she wouldn't understand economic development because her 1998 campaign focused on schools, schools and schools. She'd support the warm, fuzzy stuff, but what about businesses?

But boxed into the corner in the late rounds, she responded.

She sent a letter to Safeway, telling the chain that if it refused to voluntarily shrink the size of the store, she would shrink it herself with zoning legislation.

That's a heavy hand, one she could have thrown in Round One. But it seemed that she was too concerned about being criticized as anti-business.

She learned her lesson the hard way. So did everyone else. They all have the bruises to prove it.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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