Opinion: Doing what's best for the town center

Concept drawing of the development of Armory Square

Prince Frederick, MD - Normally, I tend to remain on the sidelines of a debate that seems to polarize a community. Plus, in this case I know a lot of the major players involved in the issue. There are no villains. However, I have been a resident of Prince Frederick for 36 years—well over half my life. This is my town and this is my opinion.

Regarding the ongoing debate about amending the town’s zoning ordinance to grant a home improvement retailer the ability to build a store that’s the size that they want, I think there is overreacting on both sides.

Those opposed are using the region’s favorite “W word”—Waldorf—to sound the alarm. Those in favor are using data from a retail study done over five years ago that shows Calvert County is losing big bucks because residents are going to other jurisdictions to shop.

To put this in perspective, this debate is all about the development of approximately 85 acres. The land is contiguous to other commercial properties so developing it isn’t an outrageous proposal. One more commercial property in Prince Frederick isn’t going to destroy the town’s quaint character. Route 4 is never going to look like Route 301. On the other hand, Calvert County residents frequently travel by motor vehicle. Over 50 percent of the residents who work drive to other jurisdictions for their jobs. There are also plenty of great destinations less than a tankful of gas from the county that people love to visit. People are going to spend money in other counties and one more commercial property in Prince Frederick—regardless of what’s located there—isn’t going to reverse that.

Early last decade, the debate over big box regulations in Calvert was conducted. People of all age groups weighed in and, unsurprisingly, a lot of the nation’s top retailers still don’t have stores in Calvert. Those retailers, of course, include Lowe’s and Home Depot—the leaders in big box home improvement stores.

The developers of the combined parcels insist a major “anchor store” is needed to get a shovel in the ground. Smaller stores will follow and a permanent community center will be built but the ordinance must be tweaked to allow the big store to happen. If the retailer doesn’t get this change, they apparently plan to go somewhere else.

So, the question is, will changing the zoning ordinance to essentially appease one retailer, have a good or bad result in the long-run?

As I see it, losing rural character or losing money are red herrings in this drama.

What’s really in danger of being lost is autonomy and leverage. The county-owned parcel now known as “Armory Square” has been touted as a most valuable piece of town center land. Is it wise for county leaders to rush this process?

Also, has anyone thought about what is at Armory Square today? While it was sad to see the old Calvert Middle School—a true local landmark—torn down, the parcel is now recreation space that actually makes Prince Frederick look like a nice place to live. If the right deal comes through it would be appropriate to develop the land and the county will possibly make a significant profit. In the meantime, let the games and the carnivals continue. When the economy improves, perhaps a more palatable development offer will be made.

People enjoy living in rural locations because they don’t have to rush. Putting a rush on this project goes counter to that.

Let the developer build that big store—but within the county’s current parameters, the same rules current town retailers had to adhere to. If they don’t like it, then all we can say to them is “good luck in your new location.”

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The BayNet.

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