Friday, July 20, 2007

Clarksburg merchants grumbling over slow-growing developments

High rents and little traffic are squeezing them, they say

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Some Clarksburg retailers say they are taking it on the chin for Montgomery County’s imposed slowdown of housing developments in town.

The merchants are in the Highlands of Clarksburg shopping center. An official with the landlord says he, too, is concerned that construction in town has been delayed.

The shopping center — the only one in Clarksburg — has nine businesses and one empty storefront.

Jason Hubbarth opened a Quiznos sub shop last summer and said he was promised Clarksburg would have 60,000 residents by 2010.

However, county officials project Clarksburg’s population to reach 40,000 in the next 20 years. The current population is about 6,500, according to 2005 Census Bureau data.

After hundreds of site plan violations were discovered in the Clarksburg Town Center two years ago, the county’s Park and Planning Commission suspended all Clarksburg developments while it examined all plans for possible violations. Many projects were set back a year or more.

Hubbarth said he pays high rents based on the 60,000 projected residents in town.

‘‘There are not enough people to support the businesses,” Hubbarth said. ‘‘We are not even breaking even.”

If the shopping center wants to keep its tenants, the rent needs to be lowered soon, he said.

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

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

‘‘The rent we are paying is as high as anywhere in the metropolitan area,” Hubbarth said. ‘‘Clarksburg isn’t what it is supposed to be right now.”

Scott Shinskie, vice president of Potomac Holdings, which owns the shopping center, did not return calls seeking comment.

In a previous conversation, however, he said he has talked with some of the merchants, who say their businesses are struggling.

‘‘We are just as upset as the store owners and the community that everything is held up,” Shinskie said. ‘‘We wish the builders would complete what is scheduled to be out there.”

Shinskie plans to add some signs to increase the center’s visibility this summer.

Jay Mhera opened his Mayorga Coffee business in the shopping center in early May. He estimates that 300 people stop by his store each week, but he expected seven times more customers.

‘‘Because of the violations everything has gone down,” Mhera said. ‘‘People are not coming to live here.”

County Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown agrees that development in the town is moving too slowly.

‘‘We need to get development in Clarksburg under way,” Knapp said. ‘‘We need to get people buying houses. There are issues and things getting fixed. Most of the issues have been brought to light.”

No merchants from the shopping center have approached him about problems with their businesses, Knapp said.

The county should consider subsidizing the Clarksburg merchants because development has been so slow in town, said Gordon Taylor of Boyds, owner of Upcounty Fine Wine and Beer, one of the shopping center’s first tenants.

‘‘That would be fantastic,” Taylor said. ‘‘It would be the fairest thing and the county would be the beneficiary.”

Four of the businesses in the Germantown Town Center received grants ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 from the county’s Department of Economic Development’s Impact Assistance Fund within the last year because the neighboring Germantown Library opened 18 months later than expected. Germantown business owners claimed they were depending on foot traffic from the library to jump-start their businesses.

Aa Salehuddin, owner of the UPS Store in the shopping center, also said his business is struggling and the slow pace of development is a huge problem.

‘‘The parking lot is always full,” Shinskie said. ‘‘Businesses are successful, but maybe not every business.”

Other tenants are Mattress Discounters, My Cleaners, Passion Nail Spa, Salon Reve, Verizon Wireless and the MCT Federal Credit Union.

The shopping center held a community festival last month with free food and a moon bounce to attract customers and to celebrate its first anniversary.

‘‘We had a great turnout at our fair,” Shinskie said. ‘‘That is something that builds continuity for the center.”

The Highlands of the Clarksburg will be the only retail area in the community until developer Newland Communities builds Clarksburg Town Center’s retail core.

The plans for the retail core were submitted to county planning officials for review in April, said Douglas Delano, vice president of operations for Newland Communities. He expects the Planning Board to approve the plans this year and the retail core to open by the summer of 2009.