Thinking outside the box store in Baltimore County

During this busy campaign season, signs in all shapes and sizes and colors seem to be multiplying exponentially on highways and byways throughout the county. Pretty soon I will be adding my lot to the collection. To some, the signs are a symbol of democracy in action. For others, the signs are ephemeral graffiti. Either way, come November, all of these signs will be taken down by happy winners and not so happy losers.

When the noisy clutter is removed, we will be able to see that a different type of sign has been multiplying and dividing and invading our communities at an alarming rate: “For Lease.” It’s hard to drive more than three blocks in any direction without seeing one of these signs — on buildings large and small, old and new.

This phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore County. The United States has the highest amount of retail space per capita in the world. According to Forbes, there are approximately 24 square feet of shopping space per person in the U.S. (roughly 50 square feet, if small shopping centers and independent retailers are added). In Europe, that number is 2.5 square feet.

With the advent of ecommerce, retail trends are changing at breakneck speed, however: 2007 marked the first time since the 1950s that a new mall wasn't built in the United States. Why go to a mall or a store when your shopping is complete with a few clicks?

Right now, delivery may typically take a day or two, but Amazon has already launched a 2-hour delivery model for its Whole Foods stores, and experts believe it will not be long until technology upgrades in autonomous vehicles will bring the delivery threshold down to under an hour.

While great for consumers, these changes are forcing large retail chains — such as Toys “R” Us, Macy’s and Best Buy — to close up shop. There are at least 24 major retailers planning closures in 2018. When stores go, jobs go, and taxes go. According to the Brookings Institution, 71 percent of workers in sales and related occupations live in the suburbs, where the high density of strip malls and big box stores make them very vulnerable.

In my district, District 3, which encompasses the northern part of the county, the inventory of vacant buildings seems to be on the rise: two restaurants on Padonia Road, the Cranbrook Shopping Center, the area near the Lutherville Light Rail stop, and all up and down York Rd. Vacant stores are not attractive; they are magnets for crime and drugs, and they lower property values. If the retail apocalypse is upon us, then Baltimore County must stay ahead of this curve by thinking outside of the box store.

We need to backfill these properties with affordable housing solutions for seniors, young families and foster kids aging out of the system; indoor recreational facilities, such as tennis or ice skating rinks, that can generate income for the county; arts and entertainment venues; museums; co-working environments; entrepreneurial incubators; vocational training centers; preschools and community health centers. And we can’t wait, because the signs couldn’t be any clearer. With apologies to “The Graduate” — forget plastics; the future is now in cardboard — cardboard boxes.

Instead of waiting for business to save us through trickle-down economics, Baltimore County must invest in itself. If we build it, then they will come. If we don’t, they will go someplace else. In nature as in life, it’s adapt or die. I choose the former.

Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong is a Candidate for Baltimore County Council in District 3; her email is; Facebook: bstrongdistrict3.

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