- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

The Gaithersburg City Council has agreed to open a permanent day-laborer center by winter, after more than a year of trying to fix the problem of 50 to 100 immigrants and illegal aliens loitering outside a downtown church while looking for work.

“We’ve got to deal with the problems in Gaithersburg,” council member Stanley J. Alster said Thursday, minutes before casting his vote to approve the center. “I think it’s time we take action.”

The 3-1 vote capped a three-hour meeting that included a presentation by the Gaithersburg Police Department, a public-comment session filled with accusations of racism against Hispanics and a heated debate among council members.

Several council members acknowledged the tentative site — a storefront in the Festival Shopping Center off Interstate 270 — is not a “perfect solution” to complaints of crime, public urination and other problems associated with day laborers, who are mostly Hispanic and illegal aliens.

However, they said a bus stop near the site and a fence that separates it from nearby homes is a “good first step.”

City Manager David Humpton now will submit the council’s resolution to Montgomery County officials, who will pursue a lease with Nellis Corp., which manages the strip mall.

“We still have many steps to go,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Nellis executives said they attended the meeting Thursday but have not decided whether to lease the space.

They said last week they would talk with tenants before agreeing to a deal.

“All of the presentations were impressive and gave us a lot to think about,” the company said yesterday. “We hope answers will be forthcoming within the next few weeks.”

Many people at the meeting supported the site, but several nearby residents and merchants said the center might hurt business and bring more crime and the kind of nuisance problems that occurred outside the church.

The lone dissenting vote came from council member Henry F. Mafraffa Jr., who said the center will bring illegal aliens to the city.

“If the county wants to do this, why don’t they step up and make it part of their larger unemployment program in the county?” he asked. “Why should we be asked to solve a national problem?”

Vice Mayor John B. Schlichting — whom Mr. Humpton said has financial interest in JBG Rosenfeld Retail, the leasing and management company that co-owns the shopping center — abstained from voting.

The decision came amid pressure from county officials, who have committed $125,000 to the solution and last month urged the city to “redouble its efforts” to find a site. More than 30 landlords had already rejected requests for them to leases space.

The police department last month began ticketing and arresting laborers who had loitered for years in the lot between a shopping center and the Grace United Methodist Church, waiting for contractors and others to offer short-term jobs.

The men now gather outside a vacant building leased last year by the county that residents also rejected as a site.

Several members of a resident task force that studied the issue earlier this year said the proposed location “meets the spirit” of their recommendations because it is largely removed from homes and schools.

They also said a formal gathering spot that offers restrooms and such services as English classes likely will eliminate the public drinking and public urination problems that occurred in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

“I think the day laborer center will take care of those issues,” said Prentiss Searles, the task force chairman and an Old Town resident.

However, supporters of the site also want the city to pass an ordinance barring the laborers from seeking work outside the center.

Mr. Humpton on Monday will present a draft of the ordinance to the council.

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