Plans to develop a shopping center on the defunct Freestate Raceway site in North Laurel have met generally favorable reviews from local residents tired of fighting Laurel traffic to go shopping.

"I personally think that the developer has gone out of their way to make sure that the community is happy with what they're doing," said Susan Umbaugh, secretary of Bowling Brook Community Association and a member of the Freestate Advisory Board. Her community of 400 homes backs up to the 122-acre Freestate property.

Freestate Associates Limited Partnership is requesting the rezoning of 23.7 acres to allow a neighborhood shopping center, which wouldinclude a grocery store, bowling alley and movie theater.

The county Planning Board will hold a hearing on the change Oct. 15.

The partnership, an affiliate of Skopbank (a Finland-based lender), had planned to develop the former harness track into a warehouse/industrial park. The Washington-based Cafritz Group started the project but transferred its interest to Skopbank, the original lender for the project, when several of its projects ran into financial difficulty.

Residents of the Bowling Brook, North Laurel and Savage community associations were briefed over the last two weeks on the developer's new plans.

Some Savage residents continued to express concern about adding to the excess supply of commercial property in the area, but mostseemed happy that the developer was planning to reduce the amount ofwarehouse space from 1.3 million square feet to about 1.2 million square feet, said William Waff, acting president of the Savage Community Association.

Only about 15 residents showed up for Tuesday night's meeting with the developer, which was one indication of a lack of concern among Savage residents, he said.

Adding the shopping center "would make things more convenient, let's put it that way," Waff said. If the new center is built, he said, Savage residents will not have to drive as far to shop. "Laurel's getting to be a nightmare as far as traffic is concerned."

"It's better to have the rezoning, like they're trying to have, than tohave all warehouses like they were planning on," said Umbaugh, who with 50 other Bowling Brook residents attended their own Tuesday night meeting with the developer.

"People are concerned about the glut of office space and warehouse space within the Laurel area. They're concerned that it's just going to sit," she said. But the developer responded that most of the warehouse space would be pre-leased to avoid vacancies.

While the residents have not voted on the project, "It appears they are receptive to some type of retail center," Umbaugh said. Residents also favored the company's plan to upgrade Gorman Road as well as the addition of a trafficlight at U.S. 1 and Gorman Road.

While the shopping center would be convenient for residents, Waff said he wondered what effect it would have on Savage's business owners.

Mary Ann Mitchell, owner of Ma's Kettle and Savage Mill's new Baldwin's Restaurant, said she wasn't bothered by the prospect of competition in the new center.

"I have a pretty nice, faithful clientele that patronize me," she said, adding, "I think they have enough in the area that there's always room for one more."

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