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‘We got a little stale’: Arbutus hopes state designation will spur investment, spawn revitalization

Bettina Tebo, the new president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association, poses for a photo with her dog, Abigayle, in her home office.
Bettina Tebo, the new president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association, poses for a photo with her dog, Abigayle, in her home office. (Photo by Matt Hazlett)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, business in Arbutus wasn’t what it used to be.

“As a person that has been living here all my life, I just remember going into Arbutus with my mom as a child and we would spend the whole day shopping,” Connie McMahon said during a virtual community meeting this month.

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That was 30 years ago. Now along East Drive, the southwestern county town’s main business corridor, there are “buildings just sitting there vacant all the time,” she said.

“We kinda dipped down and got a little stale,” admitted Bettina Tebo, president of the Greater Arbutus Business Association. “And now we’re focusing on revitalization.”

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Baltimore County is seeking to have Arbutus designated as a sustainable community, a Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development program meant to bolster aging areas languishing from underinvestment.

The designation is one step in an effort started by the Greater Arbutus Business Association to open up more opportunities for state grant funding meant to bring in new commercial and residential development. It would give Arbutus priority over other localities when it comes to the funding and incentives, said Josephine Selvakumar, a planner with the Baltimore County Department of Planning, and a former program manager in DHCD’s Division of Neighborhood Revitalization.

The sustainable community boundaries, as proposed, would cover 3,700 square feet, running from the Violetville border north of Arbutus, east along Interstate 95 and Interstate 695, down to the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel throughway down to St. Denis in the south, and up around the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Technology Center and Cowdensville to the west.

The borders would encompass Arbutus, Halethorpe, Cowdensville, Relay, St. Denis and Wynnewood.

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The sustainable communities designation would give Arbutus an edge in seeking grants covering several areas, including tax incentive programs for new development, transportation improvement, housing and crime reduction.

It also gives designees access to exclusive programs, like the Strategic Demolition Fund and the Community Legacy Program, which gives “funding for essential projects aimed at strengthening communities through activities such as business retention and attraction, encouraging homeownership and commercial revitalization,” according to DHCD.

The east side of the 5300 block of East Drive in Arbutus, looking south. Arbutus residents, during a virtual kickoff meeting for the Arbutus sustainable communities designation application Oct. 7, lamented the vacant and derelict buildings in the area.
The east side of the 5300 block of East Drive in Arbutus, looking south. Arbutus residents, during a virtual kickoff meeting for the Arbutus sustainable communities designation application Oct. 7, lamented the vacant and derelict buildings in the area. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

During a kickoff meeting this month, Arbutus residents pointed to evidence of flagging local business. A building that once housed Leeds Dry Cleaners, at 4505 Leeds Ave., has been vacant for six years; another commercial building in the 5300 block of East Drive on the north side, which usually sees high turnover of tenants, sits mostly empty.

“Everybody refers to Arbutus as Small Town America, and it’s got that touch,” said Peter Kriscumas, the county’s director of community engagement. Just over 20,000 residents live in the Arbutus area.

But “we need to get the property owners to invest in their property,” he said during the meeting.

Tebo, of the local business association, attributes the decline in the town’s major business corridor, in part, to commercial landlords who fail to maintain their buildings.

“They don’t think about investing in the community,” she said, although GABA has made occasionally successful efforts to engage some of them. “I think that’s the problem; they just want to collect their rent.”

Kriscumas cautioned community members against reporting the landlords to code enforcement, and said the best path forward was to have a dialogue.

Exposure, or lack thereof, is another factor, Tebo said.

“It’s challenging because they don’t know we’re here,” she said. “We’re so close to everything and with having, you know, an international company like Guinness right next door — how do we get those tourists down here?” Guinness Open Gate, which opened two years ago on Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe, is the first U.S. outpost for the Irish brewery since 1954.

Steve Whalen, principal of Whalen Properties, said the area, which is also designated as a Commercial Revitalization District, has been neglected by both public and private investors “despite the best effort of [GABA].”

“Somebody’s gotta lead. I feel strongly enough that there can be a market here,” Whalen said. “If we build it, hopefully they will come.”

The Catonsville developer is currently refining a plan for the 30,000-square-foot Arbutus Station project, a three-story office and retail space with a restaurant pad near the intersection of Sulphur Spring Road and Waelchli Avenue. The project originally was set to be finished in 2016, but was held up by “title issues” with the property that were settled out of court, developers told the Arbutus Times last year.

It’s an $8 million project, said Whalen, who hopes to get building permits in the next two months. “There hasn’t been 8 million bucks spent in Arbutus, ever,” he said.

East Drive is the main business thoroughfare in Arbutus.
East Drive is the main business thoroughfare in Arbutus. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The community has good things going for it to bring in new business and professionals looking to purchase homes, Whalen said, with its proximity to the Halethorpe MARC train station and Baltimore City.

But while “it’s nice to say we have this [sustainable communities] program … if you don’t put any dollars into it, how helpful will it really be?” he said.

The county police’s Wilkens Precinct, which covers the southwestern portion of the county below Route 40, including Catonsville, Arbutus, Halethorpe and Lansdowne, has the third-highest crime rate in the county, following the Essex and Dundalk precincts, according to county crime statistics from January 2017 through June this year.

But crime in the precinct has decreased by 13% between 2017 and 2019, according to the county’s public safety data dashboard.

Maryland ended the fiscal year in June with an unexpected surplus in its general fund and $585.8 million on hand. It’s unclear how hard the economic downturn — already expected pre-coronavirus — will hit the state in the next fiscal year, but the imbalance could be as much as $4.8 billion, although Maryland did not lose the $1.9 billion projected loss early on in the pandemic.

“The issue today is what’s going to happen when the state sits down to assess their financial position as a result of COVID?” Whalen said. “It’s gonna be hard, for at least a year or two. Maybe I’m being optimistic for saying that.”

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic can be felt in Arbutus, too, Tebo said.

“We did see a few businesses go, but everybody’s holding on,” she said, referring to the closure of Mike’s Pizza, an Arbutus staple of 61 years.

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A student takes advantage of one of the large booths at OCA Mocha on East Drive in Arbutus recently. The coffee shop is helping to connect UMBC, with which it is affiliated, with the surrounding community.
A student takes advantage of one of the large booths at OCA Mocha on East Drive in Arbutus recently. The coffee shop is helping to connect UMBC, with which it is affiliated, with the surrounding community. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

There are certainly promising signs, she noted. Oca Mocha, a UMBC-affiliated cafe owned and managed by former students had its origins in conversations between GABA and UMBC. Before the pandemic, a UMBC bus route that stopped near the coffee shop on East Drive brought in students, locals, UMBC staff and lawmakers alike.

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That block is well developed, too, she said; there’s Universal Comics, Objects Found and the bubble tea shop Taste Tea. Other business owners, like the new Mexican restaurant on the strip, Taqueria el Cabrito, have been investing in facade improvements.

“That block’s dynamite,” Tebo said.

“Little by little, inch by inch,” Tebo said, Arbutus is having new life breathed into it.

Ultimately, she wants to see Arbutus designated as a Main Street Maryland site, opening up even more grant opportunities. Arbutus must first be designated as a sustainable community before it can apply to the Main Street Maryland program; last week, county officials celebrated the new Main Street Maryland designation in Reisterstown, awarded by the state in September.

The sustainable community application, which must receive final approval from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Smart Growth Subcabinet, will be submitted for the April deadline, and is still being compiled.

Stakeholders are invited to weigh in on projects they would like to see pursued in the prospective Arbutus sustainable communities area through an online survey.

More online input meetings will be held, but have not yet been scheduled. Those interested in participating in the process, including sitting on subcommittees, can go to the county website.

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