What About Downtown's Future?
There's no consensus among people I know, like and respect on what to do about Frederick's downtown business district. This column results from concerns expressed by a Market Street merchant who has reached his rainbow, so to speak.
My friend bought the building where he sells his wares and rents out space for a fellow entrepreneur next door. By coincidence, as a pair, they represent the brightest hope that the revived downtown will continue to thrive. (Permit me not to use their names; I mean to write about principles and not personalities.)
My friend's concern arose from the recent listing of a building at North Market and Second for a cool $1.6 million, which the listing agent states is below the supportable market value. The premises include four apartments and two retail locations. No parking.
The concern has nothing to do with the owner's right to make every buck he can for his property. My friend has benefited too handsomely from the free enterprise system to bite the hand that enabled him to buy into Frederick's expanding real estate bonanza.
But looking down North Market Street, he expressed to me the fear that we could face yet one more flight that would result again in empty store fronts along the city's main drag. His logic is undeniable: In order to pay off the soaring prices, new investors will have to boost lease rents.
And Pushkin knows that could result in the loss of friendly faces that he counts upon to supply his daily snacks: hauling an old man around town on a promenade can rile up any seven-year-old's hunger. The English pointer has a full plate of responsibilities as it is; he doesn't need to contend with the growling of an empty stomach.
My merchant friend envisions some form of rent control that could benefit the entire community by maintaining intact the shops and cafes that provide both the lure and the comfort for thousands of visitors.
Other friends argue the other way, most tellingly my buddy Joe advises new buyers would be cutting their own financial throats by driving out tenants. "After all," he said, "they're better off getting some money than nothing."
But we have witnessed out of town investors who buy on the premise that still fatter cat tenants will follow. They bop about Bethesda or Baltimore with no thought about what's happening here. In my 22 years living in the Historic District, I've suffered enough empty fronts to last what's left of a lifetime.
On the one hand further government intervention into the private sector fills me with a horror; not without cause, I fear and loathe bureaucracy.
Balanced against this option is the fundamental reason for government's existence: it is to protect citizens and one of the ways comes from taking from individuals for the common good. For example, to maintain healthy schools we all pay taxes, even those of us way beyond the age to have youngsters in the system. My grandkids hang out outside Frederick.
As written before, I have exceedingly high regard for the downtown merchants association and their den mother, Kara Norman; they have brought the city's (and county's) core to the height of the modern era. In fairness, I must point out they are working in a solid model community created by private citizens such as Maggie and Dick Kline, which then-mayor Ron Young made roar.
Some part of me chides that since everything appears to be going great at the moment, why not leave well enough alone? And the answer is obvious, at least to me.
Prodded by my friend's concerns, I was forced to recognize the mammoth building projects along Carroll Creek add to, not alleviate, the problem. While I've heard a quote of as much as $30 a square foot for the new space, much higher than existing rents up my way, I know that at first the new shops and stores must attract merchants and crowds. That will increase economic pressure on people operating at present on the margin.
As a man once married to an East Patrick Street antiques dealer, I came to understand running a store in historic old Frederick constitutes a life style, which has trouble paying for itself.
Given my druthers, I wanted desperately for the new parking deck built on city-owned property behind the 7th Street fountain. If nothing else, government employees assured of free spaces could be asked to walk the few blocks to their offices, creating further opportunities for visitors and customers. (Pushkin and I make the hike most days.)
What this column is really all about, as I just discovered, falls under the category: I don't know what's happening. I don't know anybody who does. Will someone in authority please let the rest of us know someone is looking out for the future of this city I've come to love? Pushkin agrees.