A big box of hope on Liberty Road

Our view: Randallstown finally getting its Walmart, thanks to a county executive who understands the residents' frustration with endless strip malls and fast food

February 16, 2011

Liberty Road is finally getting the attention it deserves. The corridor at the heart of Baltimore County's affluent, largely black middle-class enclave of Randallstown will finally get the Walmart residents have been promised for years, thanks in no small part to the efforts of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Now he must capitalize on the momentum of this long-stalled development to bring the kind of employment, entertainment and other amenities to the community that its residents deserve.

Randallstown has some of the highest economic and educational attainment levels of any community in Baltimore County — higher than Owings Mills and Catonsville, and about on par with Towson — but commercial development that looks like it's been on a steady decline since the 1960s. It may sound odd to people in other parts of the county that residents there desperately want a Walmart and a TGI Friday's, but it's easy to scoff at big box stores and chain restaurants when you have them. Other parts of the county also don't have to wonder whether the lack of quality commercial development has anything to do with the residents' race. Mr. Kamenetz, who represented the community for eight of his 16 years on the County Council, knows the history and knows the frustration of the residents. He promised on the campaign trail to do something about it, and he has.

The Walmart, announced with much fanfare during the James T. Smith Jr. administration, was supposed to open in 2006, but it was held up by wrangling between the giant retailer and the real estate company that owns the abandoned shopping center it was supposed to take over. Some minor environmental contamination from a former dry cleaning business on the site complicated matters, and the recession cooled Walmart's interest. But a few weeks ago, a county economic development official heard that the negotiations were back on, and Mr. Kamenetz stepped in.

He called the owners of Liberty Plaza in to a meeting and told them he was naming a single point-person to manage every step of the development and prevent any delays. He contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment to make sure the contamination wouldn't be an impediment. And he called representatives of Walmart to assure them that the community, government and business leaders would welcome them with open arms — not the kind of thing Walmart hears every day. The result: The store is expected to open (and bring 350 jobs with it) by fall 2012.

Next on the agenda should be finalizing the deal for a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant, which is supposed to be built across the street from the Walmart but which has been on hold while the retail project languished. Developers said they wanted the traffic Walmart would bring before opening the restaurant, but that has always been unnecessary — the market is there in the affluent residential neighborhoods that surround Liberty Road — and Mr. Kamenetz should make it his goal to see that the restaurant comes to fruition as soon as possible.

The executive's other priorities for the Liberty Road corridor are wise attempts to capitalize on its existing assets and its location. Mr. Kamenetz's one capital funding request to the legislature this year was for $2 million for improvements to Liberty Road that would give Northwest Hospital (the area's largest employer) frontage on the road and provide sites for new businesses nearby. And he is trying to accelerate the completion of the long-planned extension of Owings Mills Boulevard to Liberty Road. Randallstown is right next to Owings Mills, its mall, restaurants, movie theater and the new transit-oriented development at the Metro stop there, but there is no good connection between the communities. The simplest way to go from one to another is to travel down to the Beltway, which is generally not an attractive proposition. Extending Owings Mills Boulevard would fix that problem.

Even with these improvements, and with the expected opening soon of a new county government building on Liberty Road, Randallstown will have a long way to go before the quality of amenities reaches the level that its residents' pocketbooks warrant. Randallstown has heard plenty of promises that didn't come to fruition, and it will have to compete for attention and funding with other areas of the county that also need revitalization. But the new county executive is proving to be an ally. Residents just need to make sure he continues to prove it for the rest of his term.

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