The three remaining candidates in the race to succeed La Plata Mayor William F. Eckman entered the final stretch last week by knocking on doors and making promises about how they would improve the town.
Four men ran in Monday's nonpartisan primary election to take over for Eckman, 75, who has served as mayor for 22 years and shepherded the town through rebuilding in the wake of the tornado that ripped through the Charles County seat three years ago. The three top vote-getters who will move on to the May 3 general election are members of the Town Council: Roy G. Hale (Ward 4), Eugene Ambrogio (Ward 3) and Wayne Winkler (Ward 1). Of the town's 4,341 registered voters, 720 voted, said Town Clerk Judith T. Frazier.
Hale, who has served on the Town Council for 10 years and has the most experience on the board, received 284 votes, followed by Ambrogio with 234 votes and Winkler with 164 votes. The fourth candidate, marketing and fundraising consultant Harlan F. Lang, received 36 votes and was eliminated from the contest.
"I'm extremely pleased with the outcome of the primary," Hale said. "But I'm not taking anything for granted. We have to get our message out. It's a critical time for the town of La Plata."
Hale, 66, who runs an accounting practice out of his home, said he didn't have much time to devote to the primary because it was tax filing season, but now he plans to get out more in the community. On the town's hottest issue -- the impact of the residential growth boom -- Hale says people want to live in La Plata, and the town should accept that.
"Growth cannot be completely stopped," he said. "But we've got to plan for it."
Hale said the town is negotiating to increase capacity of the wastewater treatment plant by 2 million gallons a day to help handle the 5,500 new homes scheduled to be built in coming years. He cited the construction of Shining Willow Way by the new Safeway, the extension of Centennial Street and the streetscape project on La Grange as evidence that the town is addressing its notorious traffic congestion. And if he is elected, Hale said, the town would hire a traffic engineer to study how to improve the flow of vehicles.
"We have to look at our entire traffic grid," he said.
For Hale's opponents, the primary served as motivation.
"The gloves are off. This is make it or break it time," Ambrogio said. "I'm ready for the fight."
Ambrogio, 53, was elected to the council in 2001 and has campaigned as an opponent of growth. He said the town should not annex large portions of land for residential development and last week said he wants to meet with developers to discuss ways to reduce the density of their projects. "Especially for Heritage Green," he said of a development that could bring about 3,100 homes and apartments to a site of roughly 1,000 acres in north La Plata.
"This is the future of La Plata at stake," Ambrogio said. "If they want four more years of the same, vote for Roy Hale. If they want four years of a definite change, vote for Gene."
On Wednesday, Ambrogio canvassed the Phoenix Run neighborhood off of Kent Avenue trying to drum up votes. Formerly called the Meadows, the neighborhood had been known more for drugs and crime than its amenities, residents said. Ambrogio, as the council's representative on the neighborhood committee, said he helped bring in a playground, new street lights and more police patrols.
"He paints, he helps plant flowers," said one supporter, Ebonie Davis, 29, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost five years. "It wasn't a pleasurable place to live before, and now it is a pleasurable place to live. . . . We have really reaped the benefit of everything he's done."
Winkler, 62, also said he plans to work harder to engage residents before the general election.
"I can't just sit back and think I'm going to win this election," he said. "I'm going to try to hit the major areas of La Plata and start politicking."
Among his priorities, said Winkler, are building sidewalks along Washington Avenue and helping La Plata become more pedestrian-friendly. He said he would fly to Atlanta to visit the Coca-Cola headquarters and try to persuade company officials to relocate their distribution plant away from Charles Street. He wants the site made into a park. He also proposed moving the town's public works building to Tilghman Park and creating a youth council that would come up with more activities for kids.
"I want to work full time as a mayor, and I want to work more closely with the county commissioners," Winkler said. "These problems are all solvable, but we need to work together."
On the issue of growth, Winkler said the town needs more commercial development so residents would not have to drive to Waldorf for stores such as Lowe's or Home Depot. He also said some future annexations would probably be necessary.
"We have some pockets of people we need to bring into the town because they have failing water and sewer systems," he said.
A primary election was also held Monday for the Ward 3 council seat to narrow the field from four to three candidates. Paretta D. "Paddy" Mudd finished first, with 64 votes, followed by Mike Murphy, with 30 votes, and Lynn D. Gilroy, with 28 votes. Thomas Shaw Fenner received 22 votes and was knocked out of the race.