Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Man With(out) a Plan

By Karen Cordry, Matt Schmidt and Holly Olson.

This is in response to the Gazette’s article of February 3, 2010 about County Executive Ike Leggett’s decision to not move the Wheaton Library. It is time to set the record straight about where this idea came from and how it was handled by the County Executive.

In 2008, the County hired the International Downtown Association (IDA) to take a look at all of the County's assets along Georgia Avenue to see if they could potentially be utilized to spur development in the downtown core area of Wheaton. In March 2008, IDA met with panels of community leaders, business leaders, and community residents in the Wheaton area to understand and report back to the County on what the community wanted for Wheaton. It was the overwhelming consensus of the community members who volunteered their time for this panel that having the Wheaton Library relocated to the downtown core would not only jumpstart development there but could also be a potential anchor to an internationally themed cultural center for the community. It was also thought that having the Library more centrally located in the downtown would better serve the large and growing neighborhoods located south of the Wheaton Triangle. The idea of moving the Library came from the community volunteers, not IDA. Matt participated in that process, in his capacity as then-chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee (“WRAC”). Holly and Karen were Matt’s predecessor and successor, respectively, as Chair of WRAC.

After the report was released, there was a community meeting held at the library to discuss the topic of moving the library. In our view, that meeting was premature and ill conceived in that there was no current financial ability to move the library, much less any concrete ideas about what such a project would entail. As a result, it was easy for those satisfied with the existing situation to rally around “saving” the library, while there was no realistic or concrete alternative that could be looked at or discussed. .

The result of the County’s failure to properly prepare and present a realistic proposal on this issue created a serious rift within our community that cannot be helpful to the shared goal of improving and revitalizing Wheaton. Residents adjacent to the current location argued that the Library “is ours,” while giving short shrift to the needs of residents who live south of the Wheaton triangle. There were also fears expressed about venturing into the downtown core (scarcely half a mile away from the current location!) based on a false impression that the crime rate in downtown Wheaton is greater than that in the vicinity of the Library's current location. Although police reports show to the contrary, the widespread dissemination of such claims only serves to undercut ongoing efforts to make the downtown a more lively and vibrant place that will both be – and feel - safe for all.

What has been most apparent about this process, though, was that this idea was thrown out without context, detail, or sufficient fact, so everyone was left to speculate about what might be done. That is no way to run a decision-making process – and, even worse, to simply drop this concept on the basis of that highly flawed process, without making any attempt to provide a meaningful proposal to which the whole community can react. Worst of all is that the County has shown that it has no vision or plan to replace the library as a focus and an anchor for assisting downtown Wheaton, its residents and its small businesses.

If the revitalization of Wheaton is to be anything more than just a pious set of fond wishes, the County Executive and the County Council need to have a vision and a plan and be prepared to present – and defend – that plan when questions are raised. Ruling out any consideration of moving the library, in view of the way the issue has been dealt with to date, does not show that sort of vision or dedication. Similarly, providing a large subsidy to Barry’s Magic Shop so it could move out of Wheaton, after it rejected numerous accommodations, rather than using those funds to assist Wheaton’s existing small businesses, was no more helpful.

Now, the County is considering whether to use $4 million to assist in bringing Costco to Westfield. We are skeptical over whether two companies worth billions of dollars actually need taxpayer money to bring Costco to a space that is ideally located for it to tap into the lucrative downcounty market. But, whether such funds are approved or not, they should not be a substitute for the spending needed to spur redevelopment efforts and help struggling small businesses in the downtown. One of WRAC’s main focuses has been to maintain the small business character of Wheaton during redevelopment. As far as we know, the County has not done any study as to whether a Costco would have an affect on small businesses in Wheaton, nor has there been consideration of how bringing Costco to Wheaton would fit into a larger plan for this area.

The County has been working on a sector plan for Wheaton. If that plan is not just to be words and drawings, the County needs to demonstrate that it has a real vision that it will stand behind and work for. We’re still waiting.

Karen Cordry is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee, 2008-2009.
Matt Schmidt is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee, 2007-2008.
Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee, 2005-2007.