Chamber Forum: Mayoral Candidates Talk Choice Hotels, Signs and the Pike
Marcuccio and Gajewski seek to set the record straight on the deal to bring Choice headquarters to Town Center.
The deal to bring Choice Hotels to Town Center, changes to commercial signage rules and Rockville Pike were among the topics discussed by candidates for Rockville mayor during a forum sponsored by the Rockville Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday at the Best Western Rockville.
It was the last of seven forums held this campaign season. Rockville voters will go to the polls between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
In the mayoral election, Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio faces a challenge from Councilman Piotr Gajewski.
Here's what the mayoral candidates said on a few of the issues covered by the forum:
Bringing the Choice Hotels International headquarters to Town Center will reduce citizens’ taxes, Gajewski said.
“If the business community picks up a larger part—thank you very much—the residents will need to pick less,” Gajewski told the business owners in attendance. “Once you explain that to the resident community, all of a sudden they start becoming really interested in terms of bringing business in.”
Marcuccio said that she did not vote against bringing Choice Hotels to Rockville. “I was in it at the start. I was in it at the finish,” she said. “What I voted against was the incentive package that required a $1.7 million contribution from the City of Rockville. That’s a $7.3 billion corporation, traded on the stock exchange. They didn’t need our [$]1.7 million.”
Details of the deal have not been shared publicly. Marcuccio and Councilwoman Bridget Donnell Newton have criticized Gajewski for divulging details of the closed-door negotiations, calling it a breach of confidentiality that could have a chilling effect on others seeking to do business with the city.
The Choice deal included $660,000 over 10 years in the form of what Gajewski said was “forgiveness of fees.”
The city also sold Choice 275 parking spaces in the Town Square garage for $30 a month for 10 years, he said.
“We’re actually getting [$]1 million of new revenue,” Gajewski said.
Set beside the $660,000 incentive, “that deal is $400,000 net to the City of Rockville,” Gajewski said. “And that’s before Choice Hotels pay their taxes for that building,” which will bring 500 employees to patronize businesses in Town Center.
Voting against the deal would not have “fostered good relationships” with the county, Gajewski said.
“This deal was extraordinarily important to Montgomery County,” he said. “Montgomery County wanted to keep those 500 employees in Montgomery County.”
The parking spaces are valuable, Marcuccio said.
“I don’t care if you get any direct money for it right now,” she said. “If [Town Square landlord Federal Realty Investment Trust] was willing to underwrite them, that says to me somewhere they’re valuable. You can’t write that off.”
Five hundred employees coming to Town Center “is potential revenue” that the city will now lose, Marcuccio said.
The city is getting nothing for the empty spaces, which it wants to lease for $65 a month, Gajewski said.
“Maybe we want to sell them at [$]65, and some we would, some we wouldn’t,” he said. “This is guaranteed.”
Choice will start paying $30 a month for 10 years for 275 spaces as soon as the company occupies Rockville Metro Plaza II, which is being constructed by Foulger-Pratt.
“[It’s a] terrific deal,” Gajewski said.
A chamber task force is working with city staff on recommendations for changing the city’s sign ordinance.
The city has worked closely with Federal Realty on what Gajewski said is a “unique agreement” for signage in Town Square and for Dawson’s Market, which is scheduled to open in the spring.
“Having opened up this Pandora’s box, we absolutely need to review the sign ordinance,” Gajewski said. “We need to play fair.”
Businesses along Route 355, including North Frederick Road in King Farm, would like to post signs that give them greater visibility, he said.
“It’s obviously a balancing issue,” he said. “We do not want our city polluted with signs. But at the same time we owe it to our business community to make sure that you have proper signage so that people know how to find you, know that you’re there,” so that businesses are patronized.
Without specific recommendations to comment on yet, Gajewski said he couldn’t “tell you I would go for this size billboard but not this size billboard right now.”
The sign ordinance “has got to take into consideration the existing operations in the city,” Marcuccio said.
That includes addressing signage for King Farm, where shops are tucked back in the community, away from North Frederick Road traffic, she said.
City officials are “very much aware” that shopping center owners are frustrated with the “monochromatic approach” of the sign ordinance, Marcuccio said.
“We’ve got to deal with that,” she said. “And we’ve got an awful lot of rogue activity on signage that has to be dealt with. The manicure lady’s got her stuff out every week. And even though our sign patrol goes and picks it up, it’s back again. We’ve got to put some rules and regulations in place that do not junk up the city and keep us welcoming.”
The city has, in some cases, “too much rules and regulations,” Gajewski said.
The city also has a history of taking “tremendous amount of time to arrive at a decision” on issues such as the Rockville Pike plan, the draft of which was authorized four years ago, he said.
“One thing that I will bring to the table is we will take input but we will make decisions,” Gajewski said. “And when the task force has a recommendation, we’ll move forward on recommendations.”
Marcuccio said she’d like community input.
“There’s nothing that frustrates me more than going down Rockville Pike and wondering ‘Where is that number?’” she said.
The pike “is a nightmare to find anything,” she said.
“I agree with the fact that there are probably too many rules and regulations,” she said. “But we’ve got to strip [the ordinance] down, get it to its barest.”
Rockville Pike redevelopment
Gajewski said that the vote to spend “half-a-million dollars” on a consultant to draft a plan for Rockville Pike redevelopment was taken before he was in office, by a council that included Marcuccio.
“If we’re going to spend that kind of money, we better have a usable product at the end,” he said.
Four years later, the city is finding that the plan “is not terribly usable” and the Planning Commission “is grappling with how to change it and where to go.
“Well, if that was going to happen, if that’s how we’re going to do business in Rockville then we never should’ve spent the original half-a-million dollars, because that’s an awful lot of money,” he said.
There still is no consensus on the plan, Gajewski said.
“It’s critical that we bring all of this together,” he said. An economic summit held last month “is a terrific starting point” for bringing the community and businesses together to “foster a single direction,” he said.
“I think that the pike plan was a great start,” Marcuccio said.
Unfortunately, plans for the pike, including where proposed bus rapid transit lanes would go, don’t mesh with the county's plans for White Flint redevelopment, she said.
The White Flint plan is “building these little city enclaves,” Marcuccio said.
That’s fine “when you’re creating a new community,” she said. “We have an existing community. We’ve got to blend it in.”
Marcuccio said she wanted the pike plan to cover an area from Montrose to Shady Grove roads. Instead, it covers a 2.2-mile stretch between Richard Montgomery Drive to the north and Bou Avenue to the south.
“It doesn’t make sense to have limited the space that’s involved [in the study],” she said.
There’s no record of Marcuccio suggesting a broader study of the pike when the council voted in 2007, Gajewski said.
“I think it would’ve been wonderful had that happened four years ago, but it didn’t,” he said. “We are where we are and we need to move forward.”
Minutes of council discussions about hiring a consulting firm for the pike study will show that Marcuccio wanted the study to extend to Shady Grove Road, she said.
“It is terribly important that we think of that area as a whole and not in little fractions,” she said. “If we would like to design it in fractions, that’s what we should’ve done. We were looking to make it a whole boulevard, beginning to end.”
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the amount of the incentive package offered to Choice Hotels by the city in a second reference to the deal. The amount, as accurately stated upon first reference, was $1.7 million. The second reference, which incorrectly quoted Councilman Piotr Gajewski, has been removed. Rockville Patch regrets the error.