The breakdown of Boomtown

Shootings provide more evidence of decay in once-flourishing part of Fort Meade

November 22, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Across from the precisely manicured lawns of Fort Meade stands a row of boarded-up businesses, tattoo shops, an adult bookstore and some faded bars. Once a bunch of bustling bars and arcades earned the area across from the military base the nickname Boomtown. But while nearby communities have blossomed in recent decades, Boomtown has fallen into decay.

The shooting of four men, two fatally, early Sunday morning in a parking lot here is only more evidence, neighbors say, that many businesses and abandoned properties have become magnets for criminals.

With an influx of residents expected as part of the huge military base realignment, residents and business owners hope that Boomtown can be fixed up.

"It's ridiculous that it looks this way with all these people moving here," said Dawn Washington, who owns a hair salon not far from where the shooting happened. "When people move here for BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure], do we really want them to be greeted with this?"

The area has been in decline for at least four decades, but increased security at Fort Meade - it became a closed base after 9/11 - has cut traffic to a trickle as workers are reluctant to spend their lunch hours waiting at checkpoints. And many business owners are wary of making improvements because their property could be seized to make way for an impending $400 million road-widening project.

Like many entrepreneurs who own salons, carryout restaurants and dry cleaners that remain open on this section of Annapolis Road, Washington keeps her business immaculately clean. But the pink walls of the salon frame a view of the parking lot where two Annapolis men were killed around closing time at the adjacent Traffic Bar & Lounge.

Police have interviewed the two survivors, gathered security camera footage and are working 17-hour days to crack the case, said Capt. David Waltemeyer of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's criminal investigation division.

Neighbors, particularly in the growing Seven Oaks community, have long complained that the strip is unsafe. In August 2006, a retired federal security officer was fatally shot in his car in the parking lot of a bar called My Place. No arrest has been made in that shooting.

And in August 1996, Thomas Hall, a Korean immigrant who worked 13-hour days at his store, Tom's Liquors, was shot and killed by a robber in an attack that wounded his wife and two customers.

Police were unable this week to provide crime statistics for Boomtown. An online county database shows that property and car thefts appear to have risen sharply since last year for the area around Boomtown, but the number of assaults has dropped.

County Executive John R. Leopold said he has spoken with police and the inspections and permits department to devise a comprehensive strategy to reduce crime in Boomtown.

David Tibbetts, the president of the Greater Odenton Improvement Association, said that he has avoided Boomtown in the decade that he has lived in Seven Oaks because of the crime.

"There's got to be ways to redevelop Boomtown to make it less toxic, less hazardous, less homicidal," he said. "It's become a real detriment in our neighborhood."

Seven Oaks is a community of about 3,000 tidy homes that was eked out from woodlands 20 years ago. More homes are being built in anticipation of families moving to the area because of the base realignment. Seven Oaks is bordered by another languishing area - the long-delayed Odenton Town Center.

Boomtown's assortment of bars, arcades, shops and restaurants sprouted in the 1940s to meet the demands of young soldiers but slowly declined after World War II.

A State Highway Administration project will eventually improve traffic along five miles of Annapolis Road, but in the meantime, some business owners are reluctant to improve their properties because they might be seized through eminent domain. An initial plan for the project is due to be completed by next summer, but it will take several years before the road widening is complete, state highway spokesman David Buck said.

At least five shops and restaurants have been shuttered, and others were closed during business hours last week. The paper taped over the windows of the former Okinawa restaurant is peeling. Boards covering the windows of an automotive shop are rotten and marked with graffiti. A broken fence separates the Video Outlet, a discount adult video store, from the Royal Inn.

In August, three armed men tried to rob a woman at the hotel. In March 2007, a pregnant woman was wounded when men fired into her room.

As she left a Weis grocery store within eyeshot of Boomtown, Kathy Spry, a wife of a retired soldier who has lived in the area on and off for 25 years, said she would like to see the rundown strip demolished.

"It's a family area, and there need to be restaurants and places to shop for families," she said.

G. James Benoit, a councilman who represents the area, said he would like to see higher-end businesses move into the strip. He pointed out some recent additions, including a doughnut and ice cream shop and a renovated fast-food restaurant.

"Things are improving - they're just not improving as fast as I'd like," he said.

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