Several small business owners from downtown Wheaton testified at Tuesday night's public hearing in support of Bill 6-12, Economic Development – Small Business Assistance.
The bill would “establish a program to assist small businesses located in either an enterprise zone or an urban renewal area of the County who are adversely impacted by a County redevelopment project or a redevelopment project located on County property.”
Many of the hearing attendees were mobilized by the Coalition for the Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton. The Coalition—with more than 500 members—is one of the more vocal and active groups supporting Wheaton’s redevelopment, as long as small business owners don't get the short end of the stick.
Ash Kosiewicz, director of communications and advocacy for the Latino Economic Development Corporation, served as the de facto leader of the Coalition Tuesday night.
“Right now, small businesses are making sure that the [County] Council knows they want to be a part of redevelopment in Wheaton,” he said. “Once they see that some protection is in place – legislation like we saw last night, a real commitment to this community, you’ll see more small businesses seeing redevelopment as a real opportunity.”
Among those who offered testimony to the council in support of the bill were BrandUWorld’s Sanita Alrey DeBose, Jorge Sactic of the La Union Mall Tenant Association, Owner of Los Taxes Maria Zelaya, Alex Compagnet who sells wholesale Latino food to many Wheaton businesses, Los Chorros’ Omar Laza and Sylvia & Carlos Cezar of the International College of Vocational training.
Montgomery County Council Vice President Nancy Navarro (who represents District 4, which includes Wheaton) sponsored Bill 6-12. Following the hearing, Navarro shared with Patch that she had heard some new things in the testimony, most notably “some specifics on how the anticipation of redevelopment has already affected some businesses.” She added she also understands the “strong consensus for support of [Wheaton] redevelopment.”
Filippo Leo, owner of Wheaton’s iconic Marchone’s Italian Deli, did not testify, but attended to learn more about possible support. “I’m worried about parking – we’ve been here for 56 years, but we can’t stay in business for 2-3 years without help for no parking while there is construction," Leo said.
With construction slated to begin in 2014, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel had been growing brighter for Redevelopment supporters but now, many involved parties fear that it may be dimmed, or even extinguished, due to competing priorities of the Purple Line and other transportation-related projects in the county’s Capital Improvement Program.
Local officials, as well as community and civic leaders, are engaging and activating Wheaton’s small business community through increasing education, communication and coordination efforts. Their goals are to ensure that these businesses have the tools to remain viable whether they are combating the temporary adverse affects of redevelopment or the long-term issues if redevelopment does not occur.
“These businesses face challenges regardless of redevelopment,” said Ana Lopez van Balen, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.
Balancing the needs of the community where her office is located with the responsibilities of the larger area that Mid-County Center serves, van Balen sees her role as one of support. But she has also taken an activist approach lately, urging advisory committees and the Wheaton & Kensington Chamber of Commerce to send letters in support of Wheaton Redevelopment.
Van Balen is working closely on a survey with Peter McGinnity, who manages the Wheaton Redevelopment Program from with the county's Department of General Services. The survey would assess the true needs, concerns and plans of Wheaton’s small businesses. In a similar survey conducted in 2005, 87 percent of respondents thought that Wheaton redevelopment would have a “good impact” on their business.
But that was when economic times were better. At the February meeting of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, McGinnity said he expects very different responses this time around.
But van Balen anticipates some response repetition in the 2012 survey, including requests for “computer training, streetscaping and most prominently, financial assistance.”