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Jason Miller County Council at Large


July 26, 2005

What shade of rose are our glasses?

Alan Imhoff

Recently a fellow columnist wrote an article about the rising costs of commercial rents in downtown Frederick and the potential it has to scare away the very businesses that have built the greater Square Corner area into what it is today.

A willingness to wait (almost 20 years), invest a fair amount of energy and money along with their inventiveness, countless small businesses have made this area an attraction in it's own right.

During this same period of time, Carroll Creek sat, and sat and sat as city administration after administration toyed with various ideas about how to develop the creek. Now a combination of factors, mostly centered on low interest rates, has made building along the creek a reality.

But are we being blinded by what we see and have we put on rose-colored glasses to mask some potentially damaging possibilities?

A couple of scenarios could happen individually, sequentially or in combination with one another that might make the businesses of the greater Square Corner begin to pack up and leave.

Like the 20-year build-up to where we are today, the reverse could be just as long.

Rumors of rental rates two or three times what many downtown merchants now pay bring into question what types of retail can afford those high prices per square foot?

Once in, what range of prices will those businesses have to charge and more importantly will there be enough "foot traffic" along Market and Patrick Streets to sustain the business?

Speculators and others assume that if these developers and builders can bring in the type of people willing to spend those increased prices along the creek, that they - in turn - can pick up a "historic building," spruce it up a little and make better rents as well.

As the new buildings fill up, tenants will promote heavily to make sure people come to their place of business "along the creek." Depending on how many and what type of businesses can afford "the creek," it may be a boon or it may be a bust for some - if not all - of the existing businesses around the Square Corner.

If a sizeable portion of "foot traffic" moves away from Patrick and Market Streets to "the creek," what might happen to those neat little boutiques or small restaurants?

Not to mention the dearth of foot traffic north of Second Street or west of Court. Will the plans for the creek really put the death knell to business expansion beyond Third Street?

Think about this a little. If the City of Frederick continues on its march to keep all taxes, fees and other charges on the high end of the "cost of providing service" to businesses will investments be made by new small entrepreneurs?

Delays in getting permits, delays in having construction inspected, additional costs just from the sheer volume of construction - whether new or remodeling old - have gripped this area for some time. Add the rising costs of renting space and you have a ripe mix of economic factors that could drive out the existing boutiques and other small businesses.

I had a conversation recently with a long-time mid-sized business owner and he echoed similar concerns about having difficulty in keeping costs of doing business in the city in line with what the market is willing to pay for his company's services. And his business isn't even downtown.

Could we see these downtown businesses that have invested so much over the past 20-years, leave the downtown? Unfortunately the answer is yes.

Not all in one fell swoop, but quietly, one at a time, as they adjust to this changing market; perhaps the move to other locations in the city, but not downtown. Perhaps they will see an opportunity in Hagerstown, or Sheperdstown, or Gettysburg and move there. Maybe they will just get up and go.

Some argue that by developing the creek to its full potential it will be a boon to all of downtown Frederick. Maybe it will. As with all major shifts in an economic environment, certain dislocations will occur. Don't forget, we are still waiting on the promised re-vitalization of North Market Street for business development.

The stakes are high. I lived through the re-vitalization of the west end of Washington, D.C., and saw how vibrant "K", "L" and "M" Streets became, marketed as "East Georgetown" during the late 70's and early 80's. I saw an area packed at lunch, but, by 5 P.M., it was a virtual ghost town, a situation that manifested itself for over 10 years, before it shifted yet again.

Are we wearing glasses with a clear vision of the future, or are we setting ourselves up for a not so rosy picture?



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