The backdrop to the politicians' speeches at the Lexington Park Library on Tuesday morning was the whining, hissing sputter of a cappuccino machine. Home to a Navy base and related businesses, some barbershops, liquor stores -- now this town has a coffee bar in the library, complete with butter pecan biscotti, kalamata olive boules and toasted coconut frozen coffee.
They call it -- what else? -- Read a Latte.
It's a public-private partnership that local leaders are pushing as a symbol of the revitalization of this rough-around-the-edges, rapidly growing community.
After all, the Patuxent River Naval Air Station has brought jobs to St. Mary's -- high-tech, well-paying defense-contractor jobs that helped boost the county's median household income nearly 30 percent from 1992 to 2002.
The base drives more than 80 percent of the county's economy and employs more than 16,000 people.
But the Lexington Park area is still struggling to redefine itself. There are big-box retail stores and new chain restaurants. There are dollar stores, buffets and tanning booths. Chewed-up roads lined with traffic barrels and traffic jams speak to the growing pains.
Becky Bonner, a co-owner of Read a Latte, remembers when Lexington Park was known for its dozens of bars, none of which specialized in coffee. "Back then it was gas station, bar, gas station, bar," she said.
State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), at the library to celebrate the opening, agreed. "It went into a decline," he said. "It was so easy to go up [Route] 235 and start anew. . . . This should be a big hub."
As St. Mary's County braces for a new round of military base realignment and closure decisions, county leaders have prioritized changes that will make the area more appealing to the military: increasing funding for schools, improving roads, taking care of the decaying Lexington Manor apartments better known as the "Flattops." Businesses near the base are eligible for tax credits.
County staff members have been working on a long-term plan for the 26-square-mile "development district" of Lexington Park, California and Great Mills. Preliminary suggestions include improving road networks, phasing in development and encouraging more affordable housing. County officials will conduct a public hearing on the plan at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the library.
The district straddles two watersheds, the Patuxent and St. Mary's rivers, so there are environmental restrictions. According to the 2000 Census, nearly 30 percent of county residents lived in the area.
It is the gateway to the base, and thousands of people pour in every day, said Karen Everett, the county manager of business development, so it should be a plus for St. Mary's, not a blight. Business people in the area have told her that Lexington Park needs better roads, more lighting, and sidewalks.
"This is a cornerstone, along with the elementary school, the post office [nearby] . . . of the redevelopment of Lexington Park," said Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners.
When the new brick-and-glass library opened in the fall of 2002, on donated land with more than $6 million in county money for its construction, Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) said he hoped it would become a new community center.
"This is why this coffee bar is so important," he said. "I can imagine people coming here, getting the newspaper, a cup of coffee, a low-carb danish." People laughed -- the unspoken question behind the coffee bar was: Could Lexington Park really be ready for this? Raley added that funding education and libraries has to be a priority.
Mary Ann Tomasic pushed for a bigger library in Lexington Park, a place she has seen change greatly over the 14 years she has lived here. "It's incredible," she said of the transformation. All the defense contractors brought lots of money to the area, she said, "but we still had this little dinky library."
"This is the coolest idea," she said, looking at the coffee bar while one of her children, 4-year-old Megan, sampled a pistachio-and-white-chocolate biscotti and widened her eyes in approval.
The county paid for counters as well as electrical and plumbing improvements to the front corner of the library, while the business partners, Bonner and Shari Walker, have put up about $40,000 for equipment and to get the coffee bar open and running.
Walker makes the brownies and cookies, and her husband, Beau, bakes the bread -- when he's not at work for a defense contractor.