Silver Spring has long grabbed most of the attention in Montgomery County when it comes to commercial redevelopment efforts, yet just a few miles up Georgia Avenue is another community looking to jump-start its business district: Wheaton.
Next week, Wheaton will be the subject of a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Center, a program that has helped revive struggling downtowns across the nation. The study came about after the county council asked earlier this year for a comprehensive analysis of the suburb's downtown core.
Business, civic and government leaders in the community hope the analysis will help achieve a greater degree of consensus on how best to proceed with redevelopment efforts in the 22 blocks surrounding Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard, an area that's home to 300 businesses.
There is a widely held view that Wheaton is at a key juncture. In addition to Main Street's involvement, Wheaton Plaza is undergoing a $100 million renovation and expansion that will give the shopping mall a face lift. And Wheaton was recently named Montgomery County's second state enterprise zone (the first was Silver Spring), a designation that means businesses can apply for tax breaks for making physical improvements or hiring more workers.
"We're at a very critical point right now," said Marian Fryer, the president of the 350-member Wheaton Citizens Coalition. "There are a lot of things happening, and it's a great opportunity."
"Wheaton really needs a shot in the arm, in my opinion," said Ray Morrison, the chairman of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee and the owner of the Royal Mile Pub. "I've had my business for 18 years, and I've seen the ebb and flow. We need things to start happening soon."
Wheaton has experienced an upswing in recent years with the arrival of many ethnic restaurants and small businesses that have led some to compare it to a small Adams-Morgan. Yet there have been other, less welcome arrivals that have hurt the downtown's image, such as pawnshops, check cashing outlets and illegal massage parlors.
"We've seen an influx of stores that aren't necessarily desirable," said Elizabeth Davison, Montgomery County's director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. "There are vacant storefronts, and there's an air of decline about Wheaton that we want to change. We don't want to let it deteriorate."
The county initiated a commercial revitalization plan for the Wheaton central business district in 1983. Since then, $11.5 million in county funds have been appropriated to bury utility lines and to finance new sidewalks, streetlights, benches and trash bins.
Still, many locals feel their community has long been neglected in favor of bigger business districts such as Silver Spring and Bethesda. "Wheaton has pretty much been a forgotten case," Morrison said.
Morrison and others also think that part of the problem has been the community's own inability to forge a broad agreement on how to proceed. A case in point was the recently shelved MarketPlace project that would have rebuilt and enhanced an existing county-owned parking lot that sits between the old Wheaton Plaza mall, now being renamed the Westfield Shopping Town Wheaton, and businesses along Georgia Avenue.
There was disagreement over whether the business district needed to continue using the site for parking or if it should be converted into more of a public plaza that would encourage pedestrian activity.
"We thought it ought to be a town center," Fryer said.
The views were so disparate that the county council put the project on hold and asked for the Main Street study.
"The study is the first step in trying to take the broader needs of this small downtown," Davison said. "It's an attempt to figure out where do we start and what do we need to do. And later on, this may result in physical projects, or legislation, or other initiatives."
"Part of the problem has been that the discussion has been factionalized," Morrison said, "Hopefully, by bringing in an objective point of view, this will help."
The Main Street study will bring in national experts on commercial revitalization to Wheaton on July 21 and 22 to meet with community leaders, conduct interviews and tour the business district. Later, they will propose a course of action for the community.