Twilight for Amish Market

At the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Burtonsville, baker Ben Stolzfus rolls out dough under the watchful eyes of his daughter Suzanne, 5. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday for 20 years, thousands of shoppers have headed to Burtonsville in Montgomery County for a taste of Amish farm life. They jam the aisles of the Dutch Country Farmers Market for fresh sausages and slabs of turkey bacon. They drive for miles -- from the District and Prince George's, Howard and Baltimore counties -- for home-baked blueberry pies, hand-rolled soft pretzels and freshly picked fruit and vegetables.

The 80 Amish and Mennonite workers commute four hours round-trip via van -- with a non-Amish driver -- from Lancaster County, Pa. But many have become so familiar that shoppers consider them part of the local landscape. The market's black horse-and-buggy sign near the intersection of Route 29 and Route 198 is a landmark for Burtonsville, its tables a public gathering spot for a suburban crossroads community.

But come next summer, the market will be gone -- at least from the Burtonsville Shopping Center. With the center slated for demolition, the market's vendors are looking for a new home. Montgomery County economic development officials and some residents are working to ensure that they don't move too far.

"We're afraid if we 'allow' them to move away, they could go anywhere -- to Hagerstown or Pennsylvania," said Shelley Rochester, a Burtonsville resident leading the charge. "The greater community doesn't want to lose them. . . . This is the closest thing we have to a town square."

The shopping center's developer said the tired, ugly, 1960s-era building that houses the market needs to be replaced with something nicer and more modern. Plans call for a shopping center three times as big and anchored by a major supermarket, said Chris Jones, president of Bethesda-based BMC Property Group.

The Amish market must go, Jones said, because supermarkets won't sign a lease with competition next door. Securing financing for the new building also would be too difficult without tenants who, unlike the Amish vendors, have substantial credit histories, he said. The developer hopes to break ground on the new shopping center next year.

"The Amish market has great people, and they've had a good run there," Jones said. "They'll survive. We will help them find a new location."

But finding another large, properly zoned space nearby hasn't been easy, he said. Retail space is in short supply locally, he said, and building a new site would take too long. The market, which draws large crowds, also needs more parking than would a store of comparable size.

Vendors say they want to stay in the centrally located Burtonsville area.

"We're happy with it," said Sam Beiler, 45, owner of Beiler's Fresh Meats. "We'd like to keep the customers we have."

Montgomery officials say they would like to keep the market in Burtonsville.

Cindie Harrison, of the county's Department of Economic Development, said it's been difficult to find the kind of "well-below-market" rental rates the Amish have been paying. Finding a shopping center that doesn't mind a tenant drawing customers only three days a week is also challenging, she said.

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