Shibeshi Alemayehu vividly recalls three decades at his 7-Eleven near downtown Silver Spring, where he started out making minimum wage selling Slurpees on the graveyard shift and worked his way up to store manager before finally saving enough money to become a franchisee 13 years ago.
Two weeks ago, Alemayehu, who had 12 employees, closed shop, forced to leave to make way for the Purple Line.
“I’m being prohibited from making a living,” Alemayehu said from the partially packed back office of his store two days before closing. “I’m being told to pack up and go. . . . I have no income, but I still have a [home] mortgage.”
Alemayehu had known for years that the Maryland Transit Administration was eyeing his business and about 30 others in the Spring Center strip mall on 16th Street for the site of a future Purple Line station. But the light-rail project had become so mired in controversy — with a federal lawsuit, a governor who initially opposed it, and a new White House administration that had balked at paying for transit projects — that he and other tenants said they half-expected it would never get built.
Then a July 19 court ruling allowed construction on the project to begin while the federal lawsuit proceeds. Suddenly, the 16-mile Purple Line was on, and Alemayehu and his fellow tenants had to get out of the way — and quickly. The MTA has given them until the end of September to clear out.
“I built the business all these years, and I counted on the business for many more years,” said Dario Orellana, owner of El Aguila, a Salvadoran and Tex-Mex restaurant, which he opened in the Spring Center in 1999. “Now the Purple Line is coming and closing me down. . . . Who’s going to pay my bills in October?”
So far, public attention since Purple Line construction started Aug. 28 has focused on the contractor abruptly closing the popular Georgetown Branch Trail and opponents’ legal efforts to stop the state from cutting down hundreds of its mature trees.
But those who work in the project’s path say they’ve got more to lose. Even those who support building a light-rail line to better connect the Maryland suburbs say they’re worried their businesses won’t survive its construction.
“Trees will grow back,” said Delmar Nelson, who plans to retire after he closes Crest Opticians. “But this is my whole livelihood.”
MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation officials declined an interview about the state condemning and buying homes and businesses along the Purple Line alignment using its legal power of eminent domain. They also declined to comment on complaints by Spring Center business owners that state compensation packages won’t come close to covering their relocation costs.
The MTA has budgeted $230 million to buy, tear down and move people from 57 houses and apartment units and 76 businesses between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. The state has bought all but one of the homes and about half of the business properties, according to MTA spokeswoman Sandy Arnette.
That includes about 18 houses along East-West Highway (Route 410) in Riverdale Park that were torn down in the past year.
Business owners can be compensated up to $60,000, to either close or move, Arnette said. That money covers the costs of reopening, such as to redecorate or make repairs in a new location, and to offset higher rents for up to two years.
Nowhere are more small businesses affected than at the white-brick-and-red-awning Spring Center, just north of East-West Highway. Before businesses began to move out over the summer, more than 300 people worked there, said Harvey Maisel, who recently sold the shopping center to the state.
Many of the merchants are immigrants — from Ethiopia, El Salvador, Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere — and say they have little financial cushion.
Several said they had held off buying a new car or house over the past several years because they didn’t know whether the Purple Line was coming. One said he has been unable to sell his business amid the prospect of the strip mall being demolished. Long-term leases kept others feeling stuck.
Alemayehu said the maximum $60,000 in compensation for moving to another 7-Eleven won’t come close to covering the more than $200,000 he expects to pay to buy into another store.
Orellana said he has been looking for a new location for El Aguila, but he is finding “unbelievable” rents that have soared in the past few years, often more than double the $10,000 a month he pays now. He said it would cost $500,000 to $800,000 to build a new restaurant, install equipment and pay legal fees for new licenses, and he can’t afford to pay those costs upfront while waiting for the state to decide how much he’ll be reimbursed. He’s also worried about his 20 employees who will lose their jobs when he closes El Aguila later this month; opening a new restaurant would take at least six to eight months, Orellana said.
Trinh Nguyen, who owns Bon Bon nail salon, said she never expected to have to move so quickly. She said a state representative told her last year that she would have three months’ to a year’s notice.
She said a retail space she looked at in the District would cost $2,000 more a month and provide little parking. Moreover, she said, it cost $100,000 to outfit her salon six years ago — money that took her more than 10 years to save. She said the maximum $60,000 to build and open a new location “is nothing.”
“I don’t have money to start a new business,” Nguyen said recently, as a customer surveyed polish colors, “so I don’t look a lot.”
While she can accept the Purple Line if it will help the community, she said: “I just want [the state] to find some way to help us because we’ll lose our business. We could lose everything.”
Montgomery officials, who have long championed the Purple Line, said there’s no county program or funding to help merchants displaced by a state project.
Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he has asked state legislative officials about grants or loans that could help businesses disrupted by the project. If such help doesn’t exist, he said, he’ll ask state lawmakers to create it.
“I think it’s fundamentally a state responsibility to provide assistance to businesses who are disadvantaged by a state project,” Berliner said. “You can’t just let these people suffer as a result of decisions not made by them. I believe [the Purple Line] will ultimately benefit them, but that doesn’t mean the transition isn’t potentially catastrophic.”
Deborah Hyman, co-owner of Signs by Tomorrow, said that being forced to move after 20 years has its benefits. She’s thrilled with her new location in Kensington, where she said she’ll pay $20,000 less in rent annually for one-third more space.
Even so, she said, not knowing for so long when she’d have to leave the Spring Center was “incredibly unsettling.” She said she’s also worried about how long it will take to get reimbursed for the more than $50,000 she has spent to build and equip the new space.
Ultimately, she said, she thinks the Purple Line will bring economic opportunities to struggling communities and make it easier for lower-wage workers to get to her store and other jobs. But she thinks the MTA could do much better by those it will displace.
“I’m not disappointed this happened,” Hyman said. “I’m just disappointed that it totally shook up my life for the past 3 1/2 years.”