Neighborhood opposition has derailed plans for a day-labor center in Gaithersburg that city and Montgomery County officials agreed this year to create.
The county appropriated funds in the spring to lease a building on North Frederick Avenue and operate it as a day-labor center, as long as the city renovated the building. But in recent weeks, as opposition grew, city officials appeared hesitant to proceed.
Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz said yesterday that the city will consider alternatives but declined to say that he remains committed to such a facility in the municipality of about 52,000 at the center of Montgomery County. He would say only that he remains "committed to solving the concerns" raised by a daily gathering of immigrant laborers on the grounds of a Gaithersburg church.
Until now, Montgomery officials have not encountered serious resistance to day-labor centers. The county has operated one such facility in Silver Spring for years and opened one in Wheaton last month.
The opposition in Gaithersburg echoes in some respects the debate this summer in Herndon, fueled by talk radio, over a similar plan to use public funds to aid day laborers, some of whom are illegal immigrants to the United States. Herndon's Town Council voted to approve the facility, but it continues to face legal challenges and other obstacles.
In Gaithersburg, county officials elected not to go against a Herndon-like tide of opposition. Montgomery's chief administrative officer, Bruce Romer, informed the city in a letter yesterday that the county would put to other uses the building it had leased to the city for the proposed day-labor facility -- or terminate the lease altogether -- because "it appears the City is backing away from its commitment to this center."
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, a social service organization that would have operated the facility under the aegis of the county and city, said the collapse of the plan is "a very clear message that the city doesn't welcome the Hispanic community." A fifth of the city's population is of Latino or Hispanic origin, according to the 2000 Census.
Despite media coverage of the plan, Katz said, he realized that the city had failed to include enough residents in the discussion. "We didn't realize that we didn't include people who were going to be directly affected," he said.
Some of those who live near the proposed center said yesterday they were delighted. Dan Searles said he objected to the lack of consultation and the idea of placing such a facility next to a residential area. "No one wants 50 men, the majority under 30 and a small but vocal minority of whom get drunk every day, at the end of your block," he said.
Michael Stumborg, who, like Searles, lives within a block of the proposed site, said most neighbors were in broad agreement that the city had failed to consult residents adequately and that the site selection was flawed.
"There are some of our neighbors that don't want a day-labor center anywhere in the United States of America that might serve illegal aliens or give them a reason to come here," he added.
David Weaver, Montgomery's top spokesman, said the county remains committed to a day-labor site in "the greater Gaithersburg area."