June 5th was supposed to have been a momentous occasion. But the day the parking garage next to City Place Mall fully reopened didn't turn out the way Rodwell Santos had expected. Instead of turning back the clock to the days before the garage was partly closed two years ago, when the Silver Spring cobbler had three employees and lines of customers "like you see at Starbucks in the morning," June 5th found Santos alone in his shop, looking at help-wanted ads.
The first was for a job parking cars at $4 an hour. The second was selling used cars. Santos, a 50-year-old Honduran immigrant, wasn't happy about his prospects. But he accepted them. "No choice," he said. "No money."
The rent for his Cobbler's Bench franchise was going up. After absorbing what he said was two years of losses partly from the closing of the garage, he couldn't afford to stay.
Dozens of Silver Spring merchants are in the same predicament. They stuck it out when the downtown area was run down and crime-ridden. But construction hassles and rising rents have left them struggling.
Two floors down from Santos, the owner of the EuroKids children's clothing store, Vicki Snead, said she recently had to take a home equity loan to keep her business afloat.
Across the street, dry cleaner Peter Cho said he is closing his store at the end of June after failing to sell the business. "Nobody wants it because the rent is too high," he said.
A few doors down from Cho, carpet store owner Bijan Rashedi is hoping a last-ditch intervention by public officials will let him hold on to the location he's had for 21 years.
County officials, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), have launched several initiatives to help small-business owners improve their marketing and get low-interest loans. But in the end, their efforts may not surmount the market forces they helped set in motion. Small businesses are often the first to go during redevelopment, an expert said.
"In all this development, there are winners and losers," said Marie Howland, a professor of urban planning at the University of Maryland. "And you could call these people the losers."
Silver Spring's half-square-mile central business district sits inside the Capital Beltway just north of the District. Like many inner-ring suburbs, it was a bustling shopping area after World War II. By the 1980s, however, consumers and department stores had long departed for large shopping malls. Silver Spring's downtown became a collection of tattoo parlors, pawn shops and mom-and-pop discount clothing stores.
In the early 1990s, things started looking up again. Silver Spring landed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and City Place Mall was built. The momentum continued through 1995, when Silver Spring residents debated a proposal to build the $585 million American Dream mega-mall at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.
That year, when Duncan took office, he said he would revitalize Silver Spring "or die trying." For the county to attract and retain jobs, he said, its business districts had to thrive. A year later, though, Duncan rejected the American Dream plan when the developers could not line up financing.
In the wake of the American Dream failure, developers Foulger-Pratt of Rockville and Peterson Cos. of Fairfax won the rights to turn the former site into a 22-acre project called Downtown Silver Spring, with brick sidewalks and street-level retail reminiscent of the hugely successful Bethesda Row project.
The first pieces of Downtown Silver Spring came on line in 2000 with the opening of a Whole Foods Market and a Strosniders hardware store. Also that year, cable-channel operator Discovery Communications Inc., then in Bethesda, began building a new headquarters near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Wayne Avenue, attracting restaurants such as Austin Grill and Red Lobster. To date, government and business have invested about $1 billion in revitalizing Silver Spring.
At first, small-business owners, many of them immigrants, were among the biggest boosters. Then, they say, construction of Downtown Silver Spring and the rebuilding of a parking garage drove away their customers. And now they say they won't be able to benefit from all the new foot traffic because their landlords are squeezing them out with higher rents.
Several Silver Spring business owners date their troubles back to October 2002 when Montgomery County began tearing down and expanding part of the parking garage connected to City Place Mall by a pedestrian bridge.
Parking remained available near Whole Foods and Strosniders during construction. Businesses along Fenton Street and Colesville Road across from City Place Mall and businesses inside the mall didn't fare as well.
In the fall of 2002, Snead, the clothing store owner, organized a meeting of small-business owners who were losing customers. Everyone was "in a panic," she said.
Snead said she demanded a meeting with the county executive and other elected leaders. Instead she landed a meeting with Gary Stith, an economic development official. The county agreed to put up signs directing drivers to temporary parking a few blocks from City Place Mall and provided shuttle bus service to ferry people from the parking lot to the mall. The business owners said it was not enough. "We were complaining then and no one was listening to us," Snead said.
Stith said no one invited him back. "I was available to meet with them, but I didn't hear from them again," he said.
Santos felt the garage closure acutely. His shoe repair shop sat at the mouth of a pedestrian bridge from the garage to the mall. Next to his shop, on the inside of the wall covering the closed bridge entrance, mall management painted a giant mural indicating a cobbler at work. But without the bridge, Santos said he could go hours without a customer.
As his income declined, Santos faced tough times. He let his employees go. His Toyota Celica was repossessed. His wife took on more of the bills and the couple fought often over money. In April, his wife announced she was moving from Wheaton to Virginia -- without him. "Love is love," he said. "But if you can't eat, you can't feed love."
Santos said he bears some responsibility. If his credit had been better, he could have borrowed money to keep his business going or to relocate. He thought he could hold on until the bridge reopened. "I was American dreaming," he said.
Public officials around the country are trying to do more to help small businesses adjust when older commercial areas redevelop, said Howland, the urban planning professor. In Baltimore, for example, the city in conjunction with the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-government agency, has what Rowland says is a good program that lends money at low rates to help store owners remain in the city's gentrifying Westside neighborhood.
Montgomery County officials have their own program in Silver Spring. In late April, Duncan announced the county would send out "strike teams" of economic development officials to visit small and minority-owned businesses. The teams are supposed to help business owners with marketing and accessing public programs and funds.
In early June, the Montgomery County Council set aside $100,000 of the county's $1 million economic development budget for grants and zero-interest loans up to $20,000 for small businesses in revitalization areas such as Silver Spring, Wheaton and Bethesda. The fund goes into effect in July. Business owners will have to prove they were adversely affected by revitalization or county-initiated development, such as the closure of a public garage. The Montgomery County Office of Economic Development will decide who gets the money and how much.
"Will we be able to prevent any business from leaving? No," said Duncan. But "we want to help as many businesses stay as possible."
Small businesses will have to help themselves, too, say county officials; business owners must accept that they are now in a more upscale market. "You have to ask, are lease rates the real issue?" said Melvin Tull, enterprise zone administrator for the Silver Spring Regional Center. "Or is it just not in their business plan to be in Silver Spring?"
Some businesses, such as Willow Street Yoga Center, are proving there is money to be made in the new Silver Spring. The Takoma Park-based yoga center first ventured into Silver Spring as part of a program for Discovery Communications employees. In , owners Suzie and John Hurley opened studios on Fenton Street, above Rashedi, the carpet dealer, and Cho, the dry cleaner. They now have 450 students, said John Hurley.
Some business owners who have survived in Silver Spring for the past 20 years don't see the need to change. "Merchandise is good. We have a nice store, flowers out front," said dress shop owner Ali Rostas, who in May had to close one store, Fashion Corner, to make way for a Ritz Camera franchise.
Others who are eager to adjust to the area's changing demographics are struggling to find the right formula. Several years ago, in hopes of attracting a more affluent clientele, Rashedi said he stocked more high-end rugs, then discovered that Silver Theatre and Whole Foods patrons don't make it to his storefront. "People are redirecting their footsteps" toward the new development, said Sharon Fitzpatrick, Rashedi's sales associate. Declining revenues forced Rashedi to return to his old business plan of selling everything from cheap carpet remnants to $6,000 handmade rugs.
In April 2003, Rashedi's lease ended. His landlord extended his next one until December 2004 "so I could get a taste of what was coming," Rashedi said, referring to new stores and a movie theater -- all part of the Downtown Silver Spring project -- that were scheduled to open in the spring.
The movie theater opened, quickly followed by an Ann Taylor Loft, a Pier One Imports and a Chipotle chain Mexican restaurant. But business at Rashedi's carpet store did not pick up. Rashedi said he heard his landlord was asking $30 per square foot for the vacant storefront next door. He pays only $12 per square foot. He can't afford to pay much more and will likely have to move. "I don't think it's fair, what's happening to me," he said.
The developer of Downtown Silver Spring concedes the construction hassles but says better times are ahead.
"During the period of construction, people were inconvenienced," said Bryant Foulger, principal and vice president of Foulger-Pratt. "But all you have to do is walk down there and see all the foot traffic that has been generated. Everybody should have benefited from it."
Meanwhile, Santos the cobbler was packing up and mulling his future before the Cobbler's Bench franchise put another cobbler in the space.
He had recently befriended an investor who wanted to go into business with him, possibly selling shoes. Santos and the investor spent weeks looking for a storefront in Silver Spring they could afford to buy or to lease.
By the first week of June they hadn't found anything and Santos was worried he wouldn't be able to pay his expenses for the following month. He dreaded having to give up his last major possession, a Kia Optima he bought to replace the Toyota.
"I can squeeze my stomach," he said. "Maybe I can save $200 a month."