When Bebe Rukos came to Wheaton 36 years ago, Georgia Avenue was a two-lane road and there were only two furniture stores, a hardware store and a shop that shod horses near the now busy intersection of Georgia, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road.
Rukos, now 64, opened an interior decorating shop on University Boulevard, joined the local Chamber of Commerce and met and married Raymond H. Bailey, who at the time owned the only local launderette. Now she runs a wine and cheese shop and publishes the community newspaper, the Wheaton News.
Over time, she has witnessed the transformation of Wheaton, and now Bailey is part of a thriving community of 350 businesses, many of them, like hers, mom-and-pop operations.
About 175,000 people live in the larger Wheaton area that is roughly bounded by the Capital Beltway on the south, Norbeck Road on the north, Rock Creek Park on the east and Northwest Branch Avenue on the west.
More change is on the way.
Many of the post-World War II red-brick ramblers that were bought by returning war veterans and their families in the 1940s for less than $20,000, now are attracting young professional couples with small children who are willing to pay considerably higher prices. New town house developments have sprung up, sandwiched between the older neighborhoods. Like other parts of the Washington area, Wheaton in recent years has experienced an influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants, and their presence is evidenced by several storefront ethnic markets.
Growth also is taking place at Wheaton Plaza Regional Mall, built in the early 1960s and one of the first such malls in the Washington area. In October, the mall, which has two major department stores and 78 smaller shops, will add a Hecht's department store and between 20 and 40 smaller stores.
While the quick pace of development has transformed the once-quiet community into a vibrant, if congested, Washington suburb, an event looming on the horizon is likely to herald even greater change.
Sometime in 1990 a new Metro station is scheduled to open in the heart of downtown Wheaton. Its impending arrival is receiving mixed reviews from local business owners and residents.
Some believe Metro will be a boon, generating more business for the downtown merchants who give Wheaton its small-town flavor.
But others fear Metro will give rise to mammoth, concrete-canyon-style development projects like those in Bethesda and Silver Spring, and will drive up rents and force out local merchants.
"Can anybody document any improvement that wouldn't have happened without Metro?" asked Metro critic Joe Meyers, owner of the Showcase Aquarium of Tropical Fish, a store he opened in downtown Wheaton in 1968.
Wheaton is unusual in the Washington area for its large number of small, family-owned specialty stores operating in the downtown business district. A retail study of Wheaton done for the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Development in 1984, noted that in the downtown area 59 percent of the businesses employ 10 or fewer persons and occupy less than 3,000 square feet.
The 1984 retail study stated that Metro-related real estate speculation already had begun in downtown Wheaton. "Such activity is tending to increase real estate values, which, in turn, is forcing up rents in some instances. The result is an environment of uncertainty that ultimately translates into higher rents for existing businesses," said the study, which was done by Praful Shah & Associates Inc. of Columbia.
Developers already have purchased most of three square blocks in the central business district that is zoned to accommodate up to 12-story buildings, according to local businessmen.
Businessmen also voiced concerns that the county is not building enough parking spaces near the Metro station (1,150 spaces are planned) and that other county lots that now accommodate their customers will be used by Metro commuters instead.
Others, however, are more optimistic about the arrival of Metro. "We are trying to prepare for the future, rather than wake up one day and find that the future is here," said Ralph Graeves, 61, a tire and appliance store owner in Wheaton since 1952.
Graeves, who was born and reared in Wheaton, and 17 other Wheaton businessmen, residents and community leaders formed a committee in 1980 to push for the revitalization of the deteriorating downtown business district.
Another goal of the committee is to coordinate plans with the county to build public parking facilities and a new bus terminal near the Metro station, which is under construction at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive. The committee spawned the Wheaton Central Business District Improvement Program and a commitment from county officials for a $10 million facelift of the downtown area.
One block along University Boulevard has been completed, with merchants spending $700,000 to $800,000 on a new facade and the county contributing about $200,000, according to David Chikvashvili, a county architect and planner who has been coordinating the Wheaton revitalization plan. Three more blocks near Georgia Avenue and University are undergoing renovation.
This year, Wheaton also will begin to reap the financial gain from a new county-created Wheaton urban tax district. Money from a special tax that merchants pay and from parking meter revenue will be used by the county to spruce up and maintain the downtown business district.
Local residents and businessmen said they hope to have some say about the kind of large-scale development that occurs inside the business district by getting developers to seek approval for their plans through the revitalization committee, the local Chamber of Commerce and a Wheaton-area architectural review committee.
"We are going to try to retain the retail-oriented flavor of Wheaton, but I qualify that because I don't know how it will turn out," said Charles Boynton, executive director of the Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce.
Residents are also worrying about the changes afoot. Shirley Lynne, 65, and her husband moved into their brick rambler, several blocks from the downtown business district, in 1958. They paid $19,200 and now the house is worth nearly $100,000.
(The Lynnes' home is typical for Wheaton: In 1986 the average price for a single-family home was $103,900 and the average condominium sold for $73,059, according to Rufus S. Lusk & Son Inc., a local real estate information service.)
"I'm vigilant as far as the Metro is concerned," Lynne said recently. "I look forward to it but I'm wary about what it will do to the community with people parking in front of our houses."
Although longtime resident Bailey initially opposed the Metro, fearing it would be an undue burden on taxpayers, she said she now endorses it. "We definitely need it badly," she said, to relieve traffic congestion on Wheaton's downtown arteries.
Bailey also said she remains optimistic about Wheaton's ability to maintain its base of small retailers because many store operators own their land. Nonetheless, Bailey plans to close up shop soon. She and her husband, who has a heart ailment, are retiring next year to their five-acre farm in South Carolina.
"I have mixed feelings about the changes in Wheaton," she said. "It's good in a way but sad for us who remember it as a little town. I will cry when I leave."