A bill meant to force giant retailers to help the neighborhoods where they are located is facing strong opposition within the business community.
Montgomery County residents, developers, business owners and leaders of unions and civic associations filled a public hearing room in Rockville on November 1 to give testimony and listen to others express support of and opposition to Bill 33-11.
The bill, sponsored by County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5), would require large retail stores in the county to sign a community benefits agreement with three or more recognized civic organizations--or demonstrate that they had made a good faith effort toward this goal.
A community benefits agreement, which would be a legally binding document, could require the business to do the following, according to Bill 33-11:
- engage in hiring practices and training programs that favor Montgomery County residents,
- mitigate traffic, security, noise, lighting and environmental impacts on the surrounding area,
- assist community organizations
- take action on “any other issue that is relevant to the operation of a large retail store of the community near that store.”
But what does “recognized” mean? And what about “good faith”? A common refrain heard at the public hearing was that however well-intentioned the bill, the vague language presents a big problem.
Representatives from four chambers of commerce--Montgomery County, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Greater Silver Spring and Gaithersburg/Germantown--strongly opposed the bill, saying that it would add to the county’s anti-business reputation.
The Wheaton and Kensington Chamber of Commerce did not send a representative and has not taken a position on the bill, said Vicky Surles, the chamber’s administrator.
Opposition to the bill also came from developers such as JBG Rosenfeld of Chevy Chase, which owns the Rockville Pike Center site under consideration by Wal-Mart, and Minkoff Development Corporation, which is moving forward with a Wegmans Food Market in Germantown.
These developers said that the bill makes a time-consuming, complicated and expensive development process even more so by adding the “arbitrary and discriminating” hurdle of a community benefits agreement for stores with a footprint of at least 75,000 square feet.
Bruce Lee of Lee Development Group, which owns the Aspen Hill site under consideration by Wal-Mart, did not speak at the hearing, but said afterward that he appreciated "the outpouring of the business community" making it clear that this community benefits agreement bill "is not good for business."
Thomas Hardman, who has lived in Aspen Hill for 48 years, said he would not object to a big-box store moving there, but that something must be done about the "vacant eyesore" that sits there now.
Although mandatory community benefits agreements would benefit civic associations, which would gain bargaining power over big-box stores, Daniel Hoffman, speaking for the Randolph Civic Association, opposed the bill.
Hoffman said that he was neither for nor against Wal-Mart, but that the bill “crossed a line” and would have a “chilling effect on any business considering moving to Montgomery County.”
Several high-profile figures supported the bill, including Rockville's mayor, Phyllis Marcuccio, and Maryland Delegate Susan Lee (D-Dist. 16), who said that the bill would help protect small businesses.
"These small businesses provide services and products that are basically irreplaceable," Lee said. "They are the lifeblood and bedrock of our county."
Bill 33-11 does not mention any businesses by name, but for attendees carrying anti-Wal-Mart signs, opposing the international discount chain means supporting the bill--or at least the principles behind it.
“We are here to support the bill not to bring Wal-Mart to Pike Center,” said RJ Ajmani of Rockville. “It’s going to crush a lot of small businesses.”
No Wal-Mart spokesperson addressed the council.
The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee will meet for a work session on the bill November 7.
Members of the Kensington Heights Civic Association and a representative from Westfield also gave testimony.