Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) plans to invest nearly $1 million to improve public safety in Wheaton as county officials continue their efforts to turn the once-struggling community into a vibrant residential, business and shopping district.
With the newly renovated Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton scheduled to be unveiled this spring, and 800 new housing units under construction near the Wheaton Metro station, Duncan will ask the County Council to allocate $900,000 in next year's budget to increase police foot patrols and lighting in the area.
The money in Duncan's 2006 budget, which he will unveil Tuesday, will also help pay for additional Wheaton "ambassadors," who wear red shirts and help visitors and residents with everything from directions to assistance carrying bags to their vehicles.
Duncan, who steered several hundred million dollars in public and private funds toward the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring hopes an improved urban center in Wheaton will help cement his reputation as a can-do county executive who has made Montgomery County's neighborhoods more livable.
"We are a much more cohesive community than we were 10 years ago, and in getting things done, I think people feel much better than they did 10 years ago," Duncan said in a recent interview.
In recent years, more than $350 million in redevelopment projects have been completed or are under construction in Wheaton, one of the county's most diverse neighborhoods and home to a growing Latino population.
Most of the money has come from private sources, but the county has contributed nearly $13 million to the effort. And over the next five years, county officials say, private developers could pump an additional $400 million into redevelopment efforts.
This spring, a 180,000-square-foot Macy's department store, along with 50 other new stores, are scheduled to open as part of Westfield's $131 million expansion. A Target department store opened at the mall in 2002, and a new Giant Food grocery store opened nearby in 2003.
"We are the only urban district that has a downtown and a mall," said Natalie Cantor, the director of Montgomery's Mid-County Services Center.
If Duncan's budget is approved, the police department will create a unit of seven officers whose sole responsibility will be to provide around-the-clock foot patrols in the central business district. Cantor said the officers will help make residents and shoppers feel more secure.
The budget will also double the number of ambassadors who serve as part of the Wheaton Safe Team and expand their operation to seven days a week.
"They will help carry packages, direct people to different stores, provide escorts and help with dead batteries," Cantor said. "They also provide an additional level of security and provide a concierge approach to customers in the downtown."
The emphasis on public safety comes after an audit of public safety in downtown Wheaton found that many county residents consider the area unsafe.
But the audit, completed in November, found that the violent crime rate in the area was comparable to the overall violent crime rate in the county, about 3.2 percent of all crimes. Wheaton, however, has a higher percentage of nuisance crimes than many other neighborhoods do. For example, police calls for "drunkenness" in Wheaton were three times higher than the county as a whole, the audit found.