Redevelopment and revitalization have emerged as key themes in the matchup between Democrat Vicki Almond and Republican Jon Herbst for the District 2 Baltimore County Council seat being vacated by Kevin Kamenetz, the Democratic nominee for county executive.
To Almond, the strip malls dotted with vacant storefronts and clusters of gas stations and convenience stores in parts of the district indicate the need for comprehensive redevelopment plans, particularly for the Reisterstown Road corridor and downtown Pikesville. To Herbst, that landscape shows the need for more aggressive tax relief efforts to attract and retain businesses.
Both candidates point to their backgrounds as providing invaluable training grounds for the council. Almond said the relationships she's built over the past 30 years would help her to get things done. Herbst said his work as an attorney would come in handy when making zoning decisions.
Almond, a longtime community activist and former chief of staff to state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, said serving on organizations such as the PTA and the Police Community Relations Council helped her to cultivate key relationships. A Towson attorney, Herbst specializes in business, commercial and real estate law. He was nominated by the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee when no GOP candidates filed before the deadline.
Through working with local small business owners, Herbst said he's gotten a firsthand view of the challenges they face.
He would like to make it easier to start new businesses by decreasing the amount of paperwork and waiving licensing fees for at least the first two years. He also proposed a county partnership with local banks that would allow pre-qualified prospective businesses and developers to receive loans at preferred interest rates.
Offering businesses more incentives to start doing business in the county would likely yield greater long-term results, he said.
"If we are able to encourage new businesses to come to Baltimore County, we will increase the tax base and the revenue generated from new business will vastly outweigh what you would gain from fees," he said. "It's more of a long-term view as opposed to trying to collect the money upfront, which is very shortsighted. The more businesses we can encourage to set up shop in the county, the more jobs would be created."
Any economic development prospects, however, must balance the needs of the community, businesses and development, Almond said.
"You really can't have one without the other," she said. "You can't have a vital neighborhood if you don't have a good business area in the community, [or] smart growth and development."
Certain areas, such as the Reisterstown Road corridor and Pikesville, suffer from "piecemeal development," in which new building facades emerge instead of long-term plans, she said.
"We have too many of the same kinds of businesses," Almond said. "When you have so many of them, it's time to take a look at who's moving into the area and how we're developing it."
With its antique shops, coffeehouses and bookstores, Reisterstown Main Street shows promise, she said.
"We want more people out and about," she said. "We're trying to give things a new look while holding on to the historic character."
The two candidates also discussed the importance of staying abreast of regional redevelopment issues, such as the struggling Owings Mills Mall in the neighboring 4th District. Herbst said giving residents more tax breaks would help to increase their disposable income.
"If you want to fix the mall, you really have to fix the economy," he said.
Almond said she would work across council lines to ensure appropriate development.
"We have to be vigilant about making sure that our main roads are all being developed properly and smartly so they will all tend to do well," she said. "We don't want any of those main corridors failing."
Herbst noted that he is the only attorney still in the running for a council seat. If he's not elected, there wouldn't be an attorney on the council for the first time in decades.
"You're deciding zoning issues. You are passing laws. My background as an attorney is invaluable," he said. "Kevin Kamenetz is an attorney, and I think it's helped him greatly over the past 16 years."