Leggett scores victory on Wheaton Costco deal

May 16, 2011

Fans of cheap rotisserie chicken and bulk toilet paper can rejoice. It looks as if a new Costco will be coming to Wheaton in 2012.

The Montgomery County Council defeated a proposal Monday that would have blocked the county from giving millions in funding to shopping mall giant Westfield to help secure the deal.

The vote is a significant victory for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who had lobbied for a plan that will give Westfield $4 million over two years. The subsidy raised eyebrows in some quarters because it comes as the county faces a $300 million budget shortfall for its next fiscal year and is cutting a variety of programs.

Leggett’s plan received reluctant approval from council members last fall, but momentum seemed to shift after two new members — Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — were elected in November.

The deal appeared to be in jeopardy last month, but the Leggett administration moved to make its case. Officials argued that pulling out of the agreement could damage the county’s reputation and undermine efforts to attract businesses.

That seemed to sway Riemer and Rice as well as Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring).

“I don’t think [Westfield needs] the money to bring Costco to Wheaton,” Riemer said Monday. “But the integrity of the county is at stake, and I don’t think it’s my right to jeopardize the integrity of the county.”

Six members voted against a measure that would have blocked the award of $2 million, half of the proposed incentive: Ervin, Rice, Riemer, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). Three voted for it: Marc Elrich (D-At Large), Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) and Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).

“This has been a long and tortured experience with Westfield and Costco,” said Ervin, who had previously opposed offering Westfield the subsidy. In the end, she said she thought it would set a bad precedent to change course after promising the money.

Council members opposed to the subsidy said the county might have put its pride ahead of its people.

“The idea of giving $2 million of our scarce dollars to Westfield is a mistake,” said Elrich, who led the opposition to the subsidy. “We can take this $2 million and put it to better use in our community.”

As a condition of receiving the money, Westfield officials must work closely with the neighborhood to address concerns about noise, traffic and other possible impacts.

Monday’s vote did not include a decision on whether the project will include a gas station, which many residents who live near the shopping center oppose. A decision on that part of the project will move through a separate process later this year.

Under the plan, Westfield will receive $2 million in 2011 and $2 million in 2012 to pay for construction costs related to Costco’s move to Westfield Wheaton mall. Costco will take the second-floor space that was occupied by a Hecht’s department store. Money from the county will be used to pay for renovations to the first floor of that space so the mall’s owners can try to attract a second tenant.

Under an agreement reached by Costco and Westfield in July, a store could open early next year.

Leggett has touted the project as a way to bring jobs and revenue to the eastern part of the county. County officials say rebuilding the former Hecht’s space, which has been vacant since 2006, to accommodate Costco and other retailers would bring up to 300 construction jobs and 475 retail jobs to the area at a time when such jobs are scarce.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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