The City of Laurel’s Office of Economic Development, created last October, was just as suddenly left vacant with the passing of its first officer, Karl Brendle, only two months later.
Since then, Mayor Craig Moe has officially asked Community Planning and Business Services Director Jack Brock to take on the added responsibility for the vacant office.
According to city spokesperson Audrey Barnes, “There has been no decision yet as to whether those duties may be split again in the future, and no timeline for such a decision to be made.”
In June, Laurel also bid farewell to Alicia Fields, a representative of the Office of Economic Development who focused on the promotion of businesses and revitalization on Main Street. She left public service to accept a position as bank officer for Revere Bank’s Commercial Lending department, but has agreed to continue her role as host of “Laurel Business Today,” a video feature on YouTube that covers development news in the city.
Before her departure, Fields led the city’s first-ever tour of new businesses on Main Street, organized as a partnership between the Office of Economic Development and the Laurel Museum, and highlighting 10 new tenants. “The point was to share with people the emergence of new and viable businesses on downtown Main Street,” she said.
A poll of local residents on the tour revealed that few knew of the new businesses’ existence.
“It was more confirmation to the city of Laurel and local merchants that visible and vibrant signage is critical to drawing consumers to Main Street,” Fields said.
By and large, the most consequential development issue facing city planners is a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) project just across the Howard County line that is viewed as competing with Laurel’s own TOD project, to be developed by Patriot Realty Group, of Rockville.
At issue is a proposal before the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to develop the flagstop MARC station at Laurel Park into a full-fledged station; Triple Bell Farm LLC, of Canada (and ostensibly an arm of the Stronach Group), that owns Laurel Park, submitted the proposal.
Such a proposal could indicate the owner’s intention to begin moving ahead with plans for Laurel Park Station, a mixed-use TOD project featuring retail and residential components.
According to Laurel City Council President Ed Ricks, MDOT is giving serious thought to closing Laurel’s MARC station, a decision that would make commuting more inconvenient for city pedestrians who would have to walk nearly an additional half-mile into Howard County to reach the station.
Rally for Laurel
City officials held a press conference and public rally on June 24 to bring attention to the situation, noting that the Laurel station serves about 850 riders daily.
Prince George’s County Councilwoman Mary Lehman (D-Dist. 1) said the station’s convenience influenced her and her husband’s decision to remain in Laurel after they were married. “This is really a fairness issue, we were here first,” she said. “I hate a situation where two counties are pitted against one another.”
Klingbeil Capital Management President Jim Callard, developer of the 142-unit C Street Flats mixed-use development in Laurel, said the project’s marketing has been heavily dependent on the proximity of Laurel’s MARC station.
“Our project is about 85% complete and 60% pre-leased,” he said, arguing that closing the station could be disastrous for the project’s future viability.
There’s also the question of consequences for Patriot Realty’s project, which would be left with no transit in the TOD equation.
State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) was among the elected officials who attended and spoke at the rally.
“Laurel has been a leader in the United States in smart growth,” he said. “When you look at the development Laurel has had, its smart growth, its transit oriented development. The proposal to close this train stop and open a new one up the road is the epitome of dumb growth.”
Closure Not Certain
As for the view from Howard County, “this is a state decision, as [MDOT] owns and operates the MARC line,” said Raj Kudchadkar, director of special projects for the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning.
“In our view, this is not an all-or-nothing prospect; you can have a stop at Laurel Park that’s full-service and still have one in the City of Laurel,” he said. “In the discussions I’ve been a part of, there hasn’t been a lobbying campaign [to close the Laurel station].”
Kudchadkar said he has participated in MDOT’s discussions with the stakeholders, which include the City of Laurel, as well as Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Howard counties.
“As long as I’ve been involved, it’s been a very collaborative process,” he said.
Still, the decision that MDOT makes as to how to proceed with Triple Bell Farm’s request will likely be one driven by a bottom line influenced by ridership, potential ridership and the cost benefit or cost disadvantage of operating two full service stations so close to one another.
According to Laurel City Administrator Kristie Mills, MDOT is considering several options, which include continuing operations with Laurel Park as a flag stop, operating both stations as full-service stations or closing one in favor of the other.
“The [MDOT] secretary has indicated that they’re trying to make a decision that would normally take up to 18 months within the next six months, meaning we would hear word on the decision probably by the end of the year,” Mills said.
As of press time, MDOT officials had not responded to calls seeking comment on the proposal or the decision timeline.