By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun
3:17 PM EDT, June 8, 2013
When the state Department of Housing and Community Development's 380 employees pack up and move from Crownsville to New Carrollton in 2015, fewer women will work out on their lunch break at Curves.
It also may mean fewer people getting their cars repaired, having their dry cleaning done or picking up lunch at local businesses along Generals Highway.
"It's going to hurt our local economy," said Jodi Kubisiak, manager of Curves, less than a mile from the housing department's office.
The state's Board of Public Works voted May 29 to move the housing department from a state-owned building nestled amid trees in Crownsville to a new private development around the New Carrollton Metro Station.
The vote came over the objections of officials from Anne Arundel County, who didn't want to see so many jobs sent off to another county, leaving behind an empty office building.
"I wasn't happy about it. I didn't think it was in the best interest of taxpayers," said County Executive Laura Neuman, who discussed the move with state officials and sent a letter in opposition.
State Del. Ron George, R-Arnold, had been fighting the move since it was first proposed a few years ago. He thinks his digging into the details of the first contract to move the agency contributed to it being turned down. But the state came back with a second deal that was approved last month.
George, who is now running for governor, and other lawmakers tried to require a feasibility study before the move was approved.
"I think it's an abuse because it's real people," he said.
About 40 percent of the agency's workers live in Anne Arundel County, and they now face longer commutes.
The rationale for moving the agency is to spur economic growth around the New Carrollton Metro Station, where developers Forest City Enterprises and Urban Atlantic have been chosen to build up to 4 million square feet of office, retail and living space with as many as 5,000 residential units. Overall, the 39-acre project could cost as much as $1 billion to finish.
The Department of Housing and Community Development will lease a new 113,000-square-foot headquarters in "New Carrollton East," which also will include 500 residential units and 65,000 square feet of retail space, according to the state.
The department will become the first state agency to be headquartered in Prince George's County, fulfilling a promise made by Gov. Martin O'Malley to move a state agency there.
Kubisiak said workers from the housing department pop into Curves for a workout on their lunch break or after work. In the eight years Curves has been open in the Crownsville Station building, it has had a steady stream of members from the housing department, she said.
Government workers often are stuck behind their desks all day, so "they look forward to coming here and stretching and getting fresh air," Kubisiak said.
When the agency's employees move to New Carrollton, it will mean about 20 fewer customers at Harbor Auto Center, said Megan Anderson, whose husband, Charles, is a co-owner.
With the housing department only about a mile away, they often pick up and drop off customers.
Few of the customers from the housing department live locally, she said.
"It would be upsetting to lose them," Anderson.
For Andy Peter, this will be the second blow for Crownsville Automotive, a repair shop and gas station across Generals Highway from Harbor Auto Center. He owned the business in 2004, when the state shut down the Crownsville Hospital Center, adjacent to the housing department building.
At the time, 200 patients and 500 employees were displaced, with most of them moved to other state psychiatric hospitals. A few nonprofit groups rent space in the old hospital buildings, but most are vacant.
"This will be the second closure I've had. I had a ton of customers from the hospital," Peter said.
Like Harbor Auto, his staff drives customers to work at the housing department while their cars are repaired. He's built up a steady business with housing workers.
"I'm extremely disappointed in the decision, not only as a business owner, but I'm also disappointed as a taxpayer," Peter said.
The state will pay $58 million over 15 years to lease the new space in New Carrollton.
Peter said he thinks the state should line up a new tenant for the housing building before moving the workers.
The building at 100 Community Place — also called the "Peoples Resource Center" — is 155,900 square feet and was built in 1991, according to the state.
Bob Burdon, CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses will take a hit until another business or agency moves into the state-owned housing department building.
"Certainly when you have something of that size moving out of the local area here, those employees represent economic activity," Burdon said.
Even $10 lunches a few times a week, multiplied by hundreds of workers, add up to a significant economic impact, he said.
Burdon said the chamber will work to help find another tenant for the building. If successful, that could prove financially beneficial for the county and the local economy in the long run, he said.
"The question is: What can we do moving forward to try to replace the economic activity?" Burdon said. "We have an opportunity to fill space that was once occupied by the public sector with private-sector businesses."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun