John Bodnar has heard the talk before. For the past 25 years, the watch repairman has worked at his small shop in Wheaton and heard the buzz about how the struggling business district was on the cusp of a turnaround.
Some years back, there were those who thought the arrival of the Metrorail station would bring shoppers and jobs to the downtown area in southeastern Montgomery County. Others thought the end of the recession in the early 1990s would do it. And, on and off, there has been talk about how the county was going to step in and fix things.
"The revitalization talk has been going on for years and years, and then it ends up that they get nowhere," Bodnar said.
Last week, however, something was different outside the tiny Triangle Watch Repair shop on Grandview Avenue. Just across the street, a demolition crew was busy tearing down an old, two-story building. For now, the county plans to just grow grass on the spot, awaiting bigger plans.
Though Bodnar isn't holding his breath, he acknowledges that it's a positive sign. "Yes it is," he nodded.
Things may finally be looking up for Wheaton. New owners have taken over management of the community's shopping mall and plan to invest $100 million to upgrade it. Montgomery County officials, meanwhile, say they are ready to turn their attention to the long-neglected downtown and apply the lessons they learned in creating a $321 million redevelopment plan for Silver Spring.
"Wheaton is the next critical area for Montgomery County," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "Ten years from now, I don't want the county executive saying, 'Why didn't somebody do something to stop this 10 years ago?' "
Though it is much smaller and its problems considered less severe, Wheaton suffers from many of the difficulties Silver Spring faced. The two downtown areas are characterized by a hodgepodge of small shops, restaurants and parking lots. Both lacked a true town center. On the positive side, each is surrounded by stable, middle-class suburbs.
Wheaton's most prominent feature is the former Wheaton Plaza--recently renamed Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton--an enclosed mall that seems cut off from the rest of downtown.
Los Angeles-based Westfield America Inc.--which also owns Montgomery Mall--is investing $100 million to renovate the center into an upscale mall, and plans call for a yet-unnamed fourth anchor store to be built. A new gourmet Giant supermarket is in the works.
The challenge for the county is to find a way to make the mall part of a larger downtown area.
These days, many buildings and storefronts in the business district are in need of maintenance. Pawnshops and check-cashing outlets have moved into the area. The shoppers and jobs that some believed would come with the arrival of Metro didn't come. While the county and the Washington region as a whole have been in the midst of an economic recovery for a few years, sales and property values in Wheaton have lagged.
"It's been a long time that nothing's been happening in our area, and meanwhile things are happening all around us," said Marian Fryer, president of the Wheaton Citizens Coalition. "It's as if Wheaton has been left behind."
Not all is bleak. The area has seen a boom in recent years in the number of homegrown ethnic restaurants with such names as Los Chorros, Sabang, El Pollo Rico, Dusit Thai Cuisine and El Boqueron. There is such a variety of world cuisine in this 22-block area that, for many, diversity has become a catchword, and the variety a possible showcase for a renewed downtown. It is something that makes Wheaton stand out.
"There's tremendous potential here. Everyone thought that Silver Spring would become the next Adams-Morgan. Well, it skipped over, and Wheaton sort of has become that," Duncan said. "Diversity is a real selling point and a tremendous asset. It's one of the strongest things that Wheaton has going for it."
Some believe that the area's strong diversity also makes the revitalization of Wheaton critical for all of Montgomery County. "It's a microcosm of the rest of the county. All economic strata live here. All types of people live here. And all kinds of businesses are here, with the exception of the high-tech you find along the [Interstate] 270 corridor," said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Services Center in Wheaton and a longtime resident. "This is a bellwether for Montgomery County."
The county is creating a steering committee and adding county staff to its regional services center, following the Silver Spring model. The county will seek to provide concentrated resources to the downtown. This also may mean buying land to assemble a redevelopment site and bringing in private developers.
"From our perspective, we have to do what we can to be sure that we are elevating this to the highest of priorities," said Bruce Romer, the county's chief administrative officer.
There is a sense that the time is right for change. Already, Wheaton at night seems a different place from Wheaton in the day, as visitors arrive from across the region to dine at restaurants like the Hollywood East Cafe, a Chinese restaurant that opened three years ago. "At night, Wheaton is alive," said owner Janet Yu. "During the day, it's easy to find a space in the parking lot outside. At night, people drive around looking for a spot."
The challenge for Wheaton and for Montgomery County will be to find a way to make this downtown work round-the-clock, to make the different parts--the shops, the mall, the Metro station, each cut off from the others by broad avenues and parking lots--complement each other.
"These three areas operate to a large extent as independent places. People come to the Metro, and they just come and go. People shop at the mall without shopping in the rest of Wheaton," said William Hussmann, chairman of the county's Planning Board. "The physical problem of uniting them is a huge challenge."
Another challenge will be to get the different community factions-- residents, merchants, property owners and civic leaders--on the same page. This year, for example, a plan to rebuild a county parking lot in the middle of an area called the Wheaton Marketplace elicited such a divided response from the community that the County Council halted it. Some believed that the space should be made into a public square to give the area a town center; others thought that more parking was needed.
Likewise, opinions about what should be done to the downtown vary widely. Some believe office development is the key to increasing pedestrian traffic and business activity in the daytime to help merchants such as Ray Morrison, who has closed his Royal Mile Pub for lunch because of a lack of business, though it is thriving at dinner time. Others believe high-density housing, downtown or in the immediate surroundings, could offer similar benefits.
Despite the differences, some see hope in the fact that so many people want something to happen. Morrison, who is chairman of the Wheaton Urban District advisory committee, said a recent meeting about downtown Wheaton had the best turnout in memory.
"I think people now have the sense that they are participating in a process in which we all have a stake," Morrison said.
CAPTION: John Bodnar has owned his Wheaton watch-repair shop for 25 years and has heard plenty of revitalization talk before. This time, he concedes, it may be more than just talk.