For a decade, Montgomery County officials have searched for a silver bullet that could solve the woes of Silver Spring -- a deteriorating downtown that has been losing merchants and workers for years.
But after County Executive Douglas M. Duncan rejected the massive American Dream entertainment mall last week, the county has changed gears and set its sights on a succession of more modest developments to boost the fortunes of Silver Spring's business district.
"The market has told us you can't get funding for something so big," Duncan (D) said in an interview. "Because of the realities that we're facing, I'm convinced that we will see a series of smaller projects."
Redevelopment of the county's oldest business district has become one of the key challenges for the Duncan administration, which took on the task last year after scrapping an earlier large-scale proposal that had languished through two previous administrations. Duncan has said he expects his performance as county executive to be judged on the fate of Silver Spring. That's because Silver Spring's health is widely seen as crucial to the county as a whole. A thriving downtown would be a powerful generator of jobs and tax revenue for the county.
Duncan said he wants to move rapidly to select one or more private firms to develop the site where the Triple Five Group of Canada wanted to build a 2.1 million-square-foot retail and entertainment complex connected to a hotel. The county will take another look at proposals set aside last year in favor of the American Dream. In addition, officials said they will approach other interested developers who declined to compete for the selection last year.
Staffers have made initial inquiries, and Duncan said he plans to begin meeting personally with developers before Thanksgiving.
The intent, he said, is to keep alive the chance of winning state aid for one or more of the projects during the Maryland General Assembly's three-month session starting in January. In addition, Duncan wants to move ahead with other projects that the county can do itself, with local funds added to dollars already allocated by the state to Silver Spring redevelopment.
Those projects include restoration of the historic Silver Theatre and the adjoining art deco shopping strip. In addition, Duncan said, the nearby armory could be converted into an arts center, and the county might want to retain some of the recreational features associated with the American Dream -- an ice rink, perhaps, and a pool -- to attract people to the downtown area.
Duncan also said he plans to contact the owners of City Place, the shopping mall that stands next to the site awaiting development.
The executive said he wants to discuss ways to help City Place improve parking and security.
"Clearly, something needs to be done to City Place," he said, adding that he is uncertain what role the county could play.
Duncan envisions a greater role for the County Council in the selection process. He said he plans to evaluate proposals jointly with the County Council as he chooses projects.
In about three months, he said, selected plans could be put before a new citizens advisory board to study their feasibility.
Unlike the 48-member advisory board that studied the American Dream, this one will be smaller and likely will stay in business to review future Silver Spring business district projects, Duncan said.
The new approach abandons the long-held view that Silver Spring needed a massive development to launch an economic renaissance.
Whatever project is chosen for the central intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, it will be confined to the 14-acre parcel the county already owns, whereas the American Dream was envisioned as a 28-acre development. Though it remains to be seen whether smaller will be better, Duncan and other officials believe it is realistic. "That does seem to be the right approach," said County Council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), who represents the area. "The good news is the American Dream was so ambitious that whatever we choose to do now will seem so much more manageable."
Berlage said he agrees with Duncan that the process needs to be kept on the fast track to take advantage of the momentum that the American Dream generated for Silver Spring redevelopment. "I think we should go as rapidly as possible. We've already done a lot of work."
Some community leaders, however, are unconvinced that a series of smaller projects can have the same positive impact as a project the size of the American Dream.
Steven A. Silverman, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and a member of the citizens advisory board that supported the American Dream, noted that the Dream was chosen last year in part because many believed that only something on that scale would serve as a catalyst.
"There is concern that we just don't settle on something because it can be done quickly," Silverman said. "The promise of the American Dream was that this would revitalize the entire central business district."
Whatever plans the county chooses, he added, need to be comprehensive enough to have similar ripple effects.
Michael Kraft, a leader of the civic group that most actively supported the American Dream concept, had similar concerns. "This may not even be a cash calf," Kraft said of the new concept, but he added that going after smaller projects may be inevitable. "At this time, it may be the most feasible option. Our attitude is, let's see what will work."
Duncan said he believes smaller developments can work if they are part of a concerted economic development strategy.
"The American Dream is not going to be the magic wand," Duncan said. "It's going to take a lot more time and a lot more effort, but the end result can be the same."