- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2005

Fairfax County, which is studying proposals for a tax-funded center for day laborers, could have had a privately funded center already up and operating, activists say, if neighborhood opposition had not scuttled a grass-roots effort in 1994.

In June 1994, a coalition of county officials and activists proposed a pilot program that would have used private funds to set up a trailer near a convenience store in the Culmore area of the county, where scores of day laborers gathered and loitered while waiting for work. The crowded parking lot drew complaints from nearby merchants and passers-by.

But the plan fell apart after area residents balked at the proposal to encourage the workers to relocate to a trailer on a nearby vacant lot.

Eleven years later, day laborers still congregate at the same 7-Eleven, and officials say the attendant problems — public drinking and urination, litter and harassment of women — are worse.

“We’re all frustrated that nothing is being done,” said Jack P. Smith, a property owner and community activist who led the original proposal. He’s one of many in Culmore who say their community should take a cue from Herndon, where officials plan to open a taxpayer-subsidized day-laborer center.

“Herndon had the guts to do it,” Mr. Smith said.

Last week, the Herndon Town Council approved setting up a facility for the scores of workers who now gather at a local 7-Eleven. In that case, a group of volunteers has asked Fairfax County for a grant that would help pay to staff and run the center.

Mr. Smith said that in the early 1990s, Culmore activists raised $80,000 in private funds and received commitments from utility companies and businesses to help provide services to a trailer that, under the proposal, would have been set up in a vacant lot behind the 7-Eleven near the Culmore Shopping Center.

“Everything was going to be paid for by the private sector,” Mr. Smith said. “It would have served hundreds.”

Christine R. Trapnell, a Republican who in the early 1990s served as Mason District supervisor, worked with Mr. Smith to make the plan a reality. Culmore is in the county’s Mason District.

Mrs. Trapnell said she is still willing to help fix the problem, and noted the private solution seemed to be a “win-win” for everyone. “Had it been approved, the situation definitely would not have been the way it is today,” she said. “We would, I hope, have been able to make a difference in the lives of these people.”

Mrs. Trapnell said money is not the bottom line. “It doesn’t matter who pays for it. This is part of a deeper problem,” she said.

She suggested that officials consider a more “comprehensive” site that would offer services such as substance- and alcohol-abuse counseling. The 1994 proposal included Saturday English classes and courses in basic construction.

But Penelope A. Gross, a Democrat who now represents Mason District on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, doesn’t think a day-laborer site should offer social services or job training.

“Day laborers want a safe place to get a job. All this other stuff, while nice, is available in other places in the community,” she said.

Mrs. Gross said the proposal in 1994 failed because there was little communication with area residents. “It was a surprise to the community,” she said. “It was presented as a ‘This is what we are going to do; take it or leave it,’ and the push back from the community was just intense.”

Mr. Smith disagrees with Mrs. Gross’ assessment and said Mrs. Gross was one of the leaders of the opposition.

Today, everyone agrees the problem at Culmore has gotten worse, and that something needs to be done.

Mr. Smith said retailers in Culmore now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to hire off-duty police officers to deal with rowdy or drunken day laborers.

Bobby Brunner, a property manager who handles the Culmore Shopping Center, said the situation is getting more difficult to handle. “Whether taxpayers pay for it or not doesn’t matter to me. There’s a need for something. Something’s got to change,” he said.

Mrs. Gross said she tries to educate angry constituents who don’t want taxpayer money spent on day laborers.

“They are not gang members. They are day workers who are trying to feed their families by standing on the street corner in hopes of getting a job,” she said.

Mrs. Gross thinks Herndon’s approval of a formal day-laborer center is a step forward for the county.

Under the proposal, Project Hope and Harmony, a group of churches and community leaders who sought approval for the day-laborer center in Herndon, will manage the center. The center will be located on the same lot as the town’s now-defunct police station.

Project Hope and Harmony has applied for a grant from Fairfax County, which has set aside $400,000 from its $3 billion annual budget to address day-laborer problems in Herndon, Culmore, Annandale and Springfield.

The county has not said how many groups have applied for the grant.

The group also is seeking private donations to help staff the center.

The center will offer English classes, some social services and will provide workers a place where they can use the restroom and park their bicycles.

The group’s volunteers would pay the town of Herndon rent for the trailer and its trash bill.

Mrs. Gross said Culmore leaders must establish a formal site to manage day laborers. “Doing nothing is not an option,” she said. “We need to control the chaos.”

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