- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

Consultants hired by the Montgomery County Council recommended yesterday the county use rent subsidies to prevent small businesses from being run out of downtown Silver Spring by escalating costs.

Montgomery County’s approximately $1.5 billion in redevelopment projects have brought major corporations and franchises to Silver Spring but are driving out the mom-and-pop stores that have been there for decades.

Business rents have increased 50 percent or more in the past decade, according to a study by the University of Maryland’s Department of Urban Studies.

“National chains and upscale businesses will overwhelm small, independent operations in Silver Spring unless we can carve out affordable spaces,” said Marie Howland, a University of Maryland professor who directed the study. “Montgomery County owes small businesses a fair shake.”

The study recommended measures similar to government programs to ensure affordable housing for low-income residents.

One recommendation in the 77-page report says the county should require real estate developers to reserve parts of their projects for small businesses with guarantees of low rents.

It also says Montgomery County should establish a small-business advocacy office and give the local community more input into revitalization plans.

Most of the revitalization in the past five years has been on the 28 acres north of the Silver Spring Metro station.

Major projects have included the new headquarters for Discovery Communications, the theater and offices for the American Film Institute, as well as opening more than a dozen retail outlets.

County Council member Steve Silverman said the University of Maryland report gave a first look at the effect of revitalization on small businesses, but that its recommendations were not certain to be followed.

“We’re more interested in partnerships, like marketing partnerships or relocation dollars instead of an outright subsidy,” Mr. Silverman said.

Rent subsidies “open the door for a lot of questions about who would qualify,” Mr. Silverman said.

Small-business owners say they need some kind of government help to avoid long-term damage.

Steve Yonker, owner of Imperial Framing and Fine Art, said that between 1995 and 2005, his rent increased from $1,591 a month to $2,165 a month.

He also has been notified the county is seizing his building under rights of eminent domain.

“So we’re going to get kicked out,” he said.

The county has agreed to pay his relocation expenses, but Mr. Yonker said he still is worried about hanging on to the regular customers he has earned since starting business at 905 Bonifant St. in 1987.

Other businessmen in the neighborhood also say the redevelopment might be good for downtown, but it hurt them.

Emmanuel Bobga Ayaba, owner of Roger Miller Restaurant at 941 Bonifant St., said his landlord has raised his rent from $900 a month when he started business eight years ago to $2,300 a month now.

Even then, he is uncertain whether his landlord will let him stay much longer.

“The corporations are offering him triple what the building is worth to make him sell,” Mr. Ayaba said. “We know at some point they’re going to sell the building.”

A few blocks away, businessmen in the revitalized part of downtown Silver Spring, say the redevelopment work is the best thing that happened to them.

“It’s great,” said Kenneth Scales, general manager of the Red Lobster restaurant at 8533 Georgia Ave. “It’s a nice area, a lot of people come down.”

At the nearby Borders bookstore that opened last summer, sales manager Matthew White said, “This has been one of the most successful store openings in the company. We definitely felt welcome here and it showed in our sales.”

The revitalization has been led by Foulger-Pratt of Rockville and Peterson Cos. of Fairfax under a public-private venture. The county contributed about $250 million for construction and land purchases as well as granting the developers tax credits.

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