The state came to Montgomery County's east side a few years ago bearing gifts: a redesigned U.S. 29 to speed commuters through to destinations in Howard County and the District. But soon after the roadwork was completed, new problems arose.
Nearby shopping was now obscured from drivers' sightlines. Once-thriving stores lost business and began to close.
"It's easy for people to keep on going," said Bill Strassberger, a community activist who lives near the Burtonsville shopping area, where several storefronts are vacant. "The shops there are struggling."
The experience along U.S. 29 is not unique in Montgomery's eastern sector, which residents and local lawmakers have complained for years is the county's forgotten half. And now, the tantalizing possibility that the Johns Hopkins University's proposed science city could create 23,000 high-paying jobs on Montgomery's west side is being cited as further evidence that the western part of the county prospers at the east's expense.
The data were contained in a little-publicized forecast from the county's planning agency that is provided to the regional Council of Governments for its predictions of regional growth and economic development. The Montgomery numbers suggest that if change doesn't come soon to the county's east side, the gap dividing it from the west could become a gaping chasm.
Opponents of the Hopkins plan, which would not be fully built for 20 years, say it will create traffic jams and more gridlock in the west. They have seized on the jobs data to try to bolster their case against Hopkins' proposal to build on the west side.
"In the east county, where they need more houses and jobs, a plan of this scale might be more appropriate," said County Council member Phil Andrews, a Democrat.
He said that going ahead with the Hopkins project in the western part of the county will add too many cars to already crowded roads, increase sprawl and detract from economic development on the county's east side. Andrews's constituents include residents of Gaithersburg and Rockville and unincorporated neighborhoods in between, where there is well-organized opposition to the scope of the Hopkins proposal. Mayors of both cities also have voiced concerns.
Hopkins officials, planning officials, the administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett and some County Council members say it is a "a false choice." They say that whatever development comes to the west, it won't take away from the potential for growth in the east.
"It's not cause and effect," said council member George L. Leventhal, an at-large Democrat.
East-side residents aren't so sure. "Over the years, Gaithersburg and Germantown have developed. They have beautiful town centers, the BlackRock arts center, but still there is nothing over here in the east county," said Odessa Shannon, who has lived on the east side since 1966 and formerly headed the county's human rights commission. "We don't even have a movie theater."
The gap between east and west in Montgomery stems partly from land-use policies that for more than 30 years have steered more commerce and jobs to the west side, and more housing - including moderately priced housing - to the east along the U.S. 29 corridor. Greater wealth on the west side also has brought higher-performing public schools, more expensive housing and an influx of residents with higher incomes.
"It seems we are making policy decisions almost in a vacuum," said council member Nancy Navarro, an east-side Democrat, while trying to persuade planning officials that it is time to focus on the east. "A lot of people are hurting right now and feel like they are invisible."
Even though the federal Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of a long-planned move to the White Oak area north of Silver Spring, holding out the hope for more jobs, the county's Planning Board hasn't redrawn the master plan for the area. Instead, over the past few years, the board, at the urging of the council, has promoted redevelopment on the west side, including the Hopkins plan and a proposal to redo the White Flint area along Rockville Pike.
Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson and his top aide, Rollin Stanley, alerted to Andrews' claims before he went public with them last week, began privately contacting council members to try to debunk them. But mindful of the potential political harm the east-west gap could create for the Hopkins plan, they also offered in a public session to speed up a study, currently slated to begin in 2013, that could lead to more east-side redevelopment.
Stanley urged council members to ignore his agency's data, promising that a new study - although probably years from completion - would show a narrowing jobs gap between east and west. By how much, he did not say.
"Don't even look at them," Stanley told the council as he handed out maps that showed the jobs gap Andrews had been citing.