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Development Ball: Who Calls Steps?


Harford County isn't getting a Super Kmart, but it got a supe Kmart, the largest in the Baltimore region, with two-thirds the space of the one that was proposed and half as many jobs.

There's a million-square-foot grocery distribution center coming to the county, but it isn't the much ballyhooed defection of B. Green & Co. from Baltimore. It's the local Michel family, moving from Cockeysville to 60 acres in Riverside Business Park.

Bankrupt Tollgate Mall in Bel Air, headed for oblivion, may soon be resurrected as a strip shopping center, as it was when it opened in 1980.

The empty Frito-Lay factory in Aberdeen will finally open this fall, but only as a distribution center. The munchies maker hasn't played its last chip in the poker game with Maryland over the snacks tax.

No one knows these days whether it is one step forward and two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back, at Harford's economic development cotillion.

The paradigm of this chaos theory has to be the Tollgate complex, a victim of malign neglect since New York developer Vincent Polimeni purchased it and put a roof over the strip center in 1985, hiding the stores from public view and inspiring the exodus from an otherwise prime location. Only Giant Food and K mart, a cinema, two chain restaurants, and a few die-hard shops remain in the ghost mall.

The costly mall conversion was an exceptionally bad decision, nearly everyone agrees. The supermarket and department store anchors didn't draw shoppers to other stores inside. (They are strong magnets, however, for shops in a strip center.)

Mr. Polimeni's group dug a deeper hole when it tried to sell Tollgate to Steven Hankins, Harford's bankrupt go-go developer. That deal fell through, as did another offer.

Skeptics question whether Mr. Polimeni will actually go ahead with converting Tollgate. They see it as another legal maneuver, as when the owner partnership filed for bankruptcy just as the mall was to have been auctioned off.

The strip center idea surfaced just as the Polimeni partnership faced a deadline from the bankruptcy court on reorganization. No contracts have been signed, and the promised third anchor store has yet to be landed.

Tollgate certainly deserves another chance. It's an excellent location, and the stores visible from the highway have succeeded despite the travail. With the other three Bel Air shopping centers on U.S. 1, the combined retail space would exceed that of the archrival White Marsh complex in Baltimore County.

A different uncertainty hangs over the Frito-Lay plant. The chip king finally announced that it will open the $20 million facility com pleted a year ago -- but only as a warehouse facility (Sound like a familiar story in Harford?).

The economic recession certainly delayed the opening, as did the improved productivity of Frito-Lay's other 38 U.S. bakeries.

But the Pepsico subsidiary shamelessly tied its reticence to Maryland's enactment of a snack tax last year. The law extended the 5 percent sales tax to munchies that were formerly exempted as foodstuffs. Frito-Lay claimed that the tax hurt sales in Maryland, and that depressed demand dictated that the Harford building remain in limbo.

It was a most blatant example of economic lobbying, but it was doomed to fail because the impact was confined to Harford County, while the snack taxes flowed from all parts of the state. Harford lost the jobs, the economic ripple effect, and the significant taxes from a functioning factory.

Frito-Lay plans to open in the fall, hiring 50 workers for warehouse operations. The promised injection of 300 new jobs making snack foods is still in the uncertain future.

The public, and its guardians, can be just as fickle on economic development decisions.

Under the banner of anti-growth, Harford residents killed a proposal for the Windsor Mall at the decidedly commercial intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 24 nearly three years ago. Now, a Wal-Mart megastore is sprouting there, even as a sister store is abuilding in nearby Aberdeen.

Bel Air citizens last year forced town commissioners to reject a proposed Super Kmart across from the state Department of Motor Vehicles on Route 24. Undaunted, Kmart has opened the second largest store in its national chain a few miles down the road in Joppatowne.

This month, the Harford County Council issued its Solomonic ruling on the Greenbrier shopping center east of Bel Air, a decision that both residents and developers called idiotic. Forcing the shopping strip to hide from public view, along a stretch of Route 22 that is by no means a scenic highway, makes no sense. Neither does forcing the center to become too small for rational economic development.

The locals who fought this development may well blame themselves, and the council, should a less appealing project, such as a huge discount club, be plunked down on the commercial-zoned land.

And the development dance continues to an uncertain beat.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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