Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Highlands merchants form association

Several stores in Clarksburg community’s only shopping center say they are struggling

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Some tenants at the Highlands of Clarksburg shopping center say they need to renegotiate their rents in order to stay open because business is not what they expected.
Business owners in the Highlands of Clarksburg shopping center have formed a merchant’s association to bolster their struggling businesses.

Their first order of business is to ask the landlord to renegotiate their rents because they are having trouble paying, said Jason Hubbarth, owner of Quiznos and leader of the group.

The shopping center, located in the 23200 block of Stringtown Road near the corner of Frederick Road, is the only shopping center in Clarksburg. It has 11 retail businesses.

The offices with entrances to the rear of the shopping center are not involved in merchant’s association.

‘‘Our goals are pretty simple,” Hubbarth said. ‘‘We all want to stay in business and continue to serve the people of Clarksburg.”

The Clarksburg Highlands Merchants Association includes six of the 11 retail tenants.

Business has been poor since his sub shop opened in the summer of 2006, Hubbarth said.

Scott Shinskie, vice president of operations for Potomac Holdings, the owner of the shopping center, said he is confident that more customers will be visiting the shopping center soon. Business is all right at the center, he said.

‘‘It could be doing a lot better, but we are all hurt by the housing slowdown,” he said.

Hubbarth said he was promised 60,000 residents would be living in Clarksburg by the year 2010, and he pays high rent premiums based on that projection.

County officials project that Clarksburg’s population will reach a maximum of 40,000 residents in the next 15 years. According to the 2005 census update, some 6,500 residents live in Clarksburg.

Development in Clarksburg was suspended temporarily in the summer of 2005 after hundreds of site plan violations were discovered in the Clarksburg Town Center. Many projects were set back a year or more.

Hubbarth said his rent is $31.50 per square foot per year, or about $4,890 per month.

In comparison, rent for stores in Crystal Rock Plaza in Germantown is $25 per square foot per year, CoStar Group of Bethesda, a commercial real estate information service, reported in July.

Donnie Gross, a managing member of Potomac Holdings, said he has already evicted two tenants and has renegotiated the rent for two business owners in the shopping center.

Two original tenants — Verizon Wireless and Curves — left the shopping center after it opened in the summer of 2006. Keen Karate and Pizza 500 have moved into their stores.

Quiznos, Keen Karate, My Cleaners, Mayorga Coffee, Reve Salon and the UPS Store belong to the merchant’s association.

Other tenants in the shopping center are Pizza 500, UpCounty Fine Wine & Beer, MCT Federal Credit Union, Mattress Discounters and Passion Nail Spa.

Hubbarth said that none of the tenants in the association has had its rent adjusted.

Gross declined to say whether he will meet with all six members of the merchant’s association so they can negotiate as a group.

‘‘We don’t negotiate in the press with our tenants,” he said. ‘‘We have bank loan obligations just like they have obligations.”

Dealings with Potomac Holdings have been strained, and the last meeting with management a month ago was not productive, Hubbarth said. The landlord has agreed to only meet with tenants individually, not as the merchant’s association, he said.

Tenants have also said the landlord has told them not to talk to The Gazette.

‘‘They don’t care about the little guy here that is paying their mortgage,” Hubbarth said.

At least one tenant, Upcounty Fine Wine & Beer, is doing extremely well, Shinskie said, and he has a long list of tenants that want to move into the shopping center if others leave.

One problem at the shopping center identified by tenants that might be more easily fixed is the parking lot.

The shopping center’s narrow parking spaces are keeping customers away, Hubbarth said. Customers have told him they would not return to his sub shop because it is too dangerous to try to back out of a parking space. His own car has been hit seven times in the parking lot, he said.

Shinskie said customers complained about parking problems when the center first opened, but he has not heard any complaints recently.

‘‘Parking is always an issue,” Kathleen Mitchell, the Clarksburg ombudsman, said. ‘‘It is not the best designed shopping center I’ve ever seen, but it is not the worst, either.”

She said that it might be too late to make any major improvements to the parking lot, but some minor improvements could be made.

The shopping center owner could reduce the height of the wheel blocks, which are too high, or remove them completely, she said. That would allow vehicles to pull farther into the parking spaces, which would give people more room to back out of their spaces, she added.