Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Story Is Substance

The Laurel City Council did not approve any TIF money for Laurel Commons last week. They only approved the TIF map boundaries. The Gazette left their readers confused, incorrectly writing that the council had approved $14 million for public financing. The Leader got the story correct. Council members must still decide how much, if any, money will be invested in the project.

What do you think?
Would you vote to invest city tax dollar$?
Please add your comments below.


I don’t envy the council’s decision. It's a hot political topic. I’ve already received a surprising number of private emails and comments from neighbors strongly opposed to the TIF. I’ve only had a couple in emails in support. The opposition’s comments have included:

• “We should not pay for more retail. We don’t need it.”

• “Give a TIF to Main Street. They need it more.”
• “They [developers] didn’t say they wanted a TIF last year. Why now?”
• “Invest city taxes for a Burlington Coat Factory? No way!”
• “No more bailouts, bulldoze the mall and build a park.”

I’ve been wondering why so many Laurelites are opposed to the TIF. Why are there such strong emotions?

It might be a reaction to the bad economy and the billions in bailouts for banks and automobile companies. But this can’t be the reason because the anti-TIF drumbeat started long before the economy tanked.

Then, thinking back over the
Laurel Mall story, I began to see that some of this opposition might be the result of how the rebuilding story was told. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories. Sometimes the story matches reality and sometimes it doesn’t.

When I start a round of golf with a shiny new driver, I tell myself a story that I’m going to shoot like Tiger Woods. Usually by the third tee I realize I’ve got the same clumsy game as before. It’s a shiny new driver but it’s the same old, fat, bald guy swinging the damn thing. I think that might be what’s causing the strong opposition to the Laurel Commons TIF. We bought the dream but then reality kicked in at the exact same time the TIF was mentioned. Of course we are feeling disappointed.

You have got to hand it to the Laurel Commons developers. They really pumped up the original story. Expectations were sky high after those early focus groups. We swooned over the dream of a reborn mall with historically accurate mill art, classy fabric swatches, and even an ice skating ring.

These story tellers were slick. Maybe too slick as everyone realized we were only getting common stores and the promise of a couple of restaurants and a new multiplex theatre. After buying the early story about a shining cathedral to retail consumerism, we woke up to realize that we are simply rebuilding a shopping center. It's really not Tiger Woods. It’s just the same old, fat, Wilson, but now he has a new toupee and wants the city to pay him $14 million for playing.

You need to sit in the dark to appreciate the light.
You need to fear the nightmare of hell to accept the dream of heaven.

Why do so many people oppose the TIF for Laurel Commons? Let me offer the following explanation for your consideration.

We sold the dream without first selling the nightmare of a failed mall. I think that we, all of us, city leaders, mall developers and even this bloviating blogger failed to fully explain the true cost of a failed mall.

• The Laurel mall was dead 8 years ago, and this was during the boom.
• What would have happened if the developers passed on the Laurel Commons project?
• How long would the mall have survived in today’s economy? It would have gone from death spiral to flat line. Tax revenues would have dropped to near zero.
• The downside of a dead mall is almost insurmountable for a town our size. We can’t absorb the loss.
• How many of you remember the
dead Rockville mall? It decomposed for over two decades, not only generating zero tax revenue, but its blight was dragging down surrounding property values.

• The city wins when the Laurel Commons succeeds. We get 40% of the success. If we don't stop the bleeding, we will get 100% of almost zero.
• The tax revenue prediction with a derelict Laurel Mall in 2015 makes the city’s revenue split in the same year with a TIF look fantastic in comparison.

I support the TIF. We must save the mall property from its death spiral. The TIF combines a little bit of city money with a lot of other people’s money to keep the mall from certain death. We won’t get a Columbia Mall but we will get a refreshed mall that will be viable for decades. I would have paid a 40% TIF just to get a new movie theatre.

I encourage the Laurel City Council to approve a TIF for the Laurel Commons project.

There is nothing more important than a story to help us learn new things—or to appreciate common things in uncommon ways.

Getting the story right is one of the most difficult skills to master in business, politics, or life. I've learned to appreciate the mastery attained by the early Christian writers. They told their story and it included both heaven and hell. They got their story right and it has served to both define and renew us for over 2000 years.

Merry Christmas,

rick

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Raising Puppies - Lifting Lives

Fidos for Freedom is a Laurel non-profit institution that trains hearing dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs for people who are physically challenged, deaf or hard-of-hearing.

My wife Joanne has volunteered as a puppy raiser for Fidos for the last 12 years. Joanne is better known to Laurel Connection readers as, "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed."

Denise Portis recently finished a wonderful article about Joanne and the puppy raising program for Fidos' newsletter. Denise has given me permission to post her article in it's entirety below. Denise is a fine writer and also a Fidos client. She writes about her hearing loss and her service dog Chloe on her blog Hearing Elmo.

A 2009 Fidos for Freedom calendar makes a great Christmas gift and your tax deductible donation helps this wonderful Oldtown Laurel neighbor. Check their website for details.

I'm extremely proud of Joanne's vocation as a puppy raiser. Now you understand how she had the patience keep me around all of these 25 years. At least I started out as almost house trained.

The Imprint of a Puppy Raiser
By Denise Portis (reprinted with permission)

Joanne with current puppy, Champ

The special assistance dogs at Fidos For Freedom all began their training in the same place – the loving home of a Puppy Raiser. The Puppy Raiser provides a home and basic training for a new puppy, while attending weekly classes at the Fidos Training Center. “The pups ALWAYS remember their Puppy Raiser,” says Pat Jarvis, Director of Training. The Puppy Raiser’s imprint is permanent, having helped to shape the character and development of the assistance dog.

Joanne Wilson is a long-time Puppy Raiser at Fidos For Freedom. She began volunteering after meeting two other volunteers at her place of employment – the USDA in Beltsville. She is currently raising Champ, her eighth puppy for the Assistance Dog Program, and has been raising puppies for the organization for twelve years.

Joanne made sure that her children, then ages six and nine, understood that the puppy did not belong to them. She involved them in teaching and loving the puppy with the goal of then giving it to someone who would need the dog to live a more full and independent life. “The trained dog is a gift that we give … the kids understood that logic,” Joanne shared.

Many people wonder how a Puppy Raiser can “give the puppy back” after investing their lives in one for so long. It’s simple really – these special volunteers love people as much as they do puppies. The reward is in seeing a puppy they raised eventually completing their training with one of the training staff, and then being matched with a client in need of an assistance dog. “I have so much pride in every team of which I have had a part,” explained Joanne. “I have shed more tears of joy over what ‘my dog’ has done for a client, than tears of sadness when they have moved on in their training.”

Erin Saywell, Trainer and Puppy Coordinator, sees the mutual rewards between Puppy Raiser and puppy. Erin works closely with the Puppy Raiser during weekly training sessions, helping the volunteer learn to expose the puppy to various sights, sounds and different populations. The puppies are nurtured and loved in a warm home environment, learning good household manners and how to eliminate on command. “Joanne has been a great role-model for new Puppy Raisers,” said Erin, “letting them know the ‘ups and downs’ of raising an Assistance Dog puppy.”

Joanne has learned that although basic puppy raising is the same, different breeds and traits at times create some unique complications. “We had a Field Labrador puppy that needed to play ball on a daily basis. She worked better if she played first,” admitted Joanne. A Smooth-Coated Collie puppy she raised was very smart, but had trouble with fetching. “The trainers at Fidos are always available, and helped me a lot with that,” confides Joanne. “The trainers have knowledge and experience that they share. They make puppy raising easy for me, and I appreciate them tremendously.”

Joanne and fellow Puppy Raisers are surprised at how much these puppies want to work. When they are training a puppy in the house and do not ask it to do tasks, sometimes the puppy becomes bored and performs tasks on its own. Joanne remembers, “I trained a Labrador named Remi. When she was bored she would bring me things; a shoe, a toy, anything to get my attention and praise. Even when I didn’t need my jacket tugged off, or my shoes ‘fetched,’ I asked her to do it because she enjoyed it!”

Although the Puppy Raiser has unique insight into the puppy they are raising, they are sometimes surprised at the role the dog may play in the life of a client one day. “The trainers see things that I don’t see,” Joanne recalls. “Lily, the last puppy I raised, had good skills and was relatively large. I assumed she’d be a Service Dog. But she spent one week with Pat Jarvis, and it was discovered that she had terrific hearing skills.” Lily is now matched with a client who will use her for her fine hearing alerts.
The puppies at Fidos mature and thrive in the loving homes of their Puppy Raiser. The special bond created between volunteer and puppy is never erased. Pat was very excited to re-acquaint Joanne with the very first puppy she raised for the organization at the 10th Annual Stroll ‘n Roll in November. Higgins, a twelve-year-old black Labrador Retriever, now lives with Leah Miller in Calvert County. “Joanne and Higgins had a great reunion … there was no doubt that they remembered each other,” shared Pat. The bond was still there, and Higgins knew Joanne right away.

A permanent handprint is left on the hearts of the puppies because of the commitment of their Puppy Raiser. Also, each volunteer will tell you that the puppies leave permanent paw prints on their hearts as well. What’s not to love about a puppy? The Puppy Raisers will tell you it is more “fun” than it is “work.” It becomes an automatic process to work with the puppies daily to review their skills, cementing what they have learned. However, when they see the puppy do something as if it was second nature, they begin to understand the lasting effect of their training. Joanne will never forget a special moment with Chase, her second puppy.

“We were at Fidos one Wednesday evening, and a client asked if my puppy could pick up her cane that had fallen to the floor. When the puppy did, I was so surprised and overcome with emotion. The dog was merely doing what it had learned to do.” Joanne marvels at what the puppies seem to understand and what is expected. “The dogs really come into their own after they are placed and living with their clients. I’ve heard story after story of dogs doing things for which they were never specifically trained. Somehow these dogs learn what their clients need them to do.”

Puppy Raisers do not “go it alone.” A sponsor provides the funds needed to supply the puppy with food, veterinary care, toys, equipment, bedding, etc. The trainers provide direction, advice and encouragement in weekly training sessions, as well as responding to individual concerns as they arise. The puppy provides an avenue in which one can invest themselves in the life of another. Puppy kisses, wagging tails and unconditional love are a great additional “perk”! Joanne believes that being a Puppy Raiser is surprisingly easy. “These dogs are like gems. The trainers and I just polish them. These dogs are made to SHINE.”

If you would like more information about being a Puppy Raiser, please e-mail Erin Saywell at puppies@fidosforfreedom.org.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reader Suggests Oldtown Neglected

An anonymous commenter responded to my previous article about the TIF Tiff and suggested that our Oldtown Laurel neighborhood is being neglected by the city.

Anonymous wrote: "A million bucks for a pool, 20 million for the mall, and not a cent for old town! The police station moves, the Leader moves, it's like the city doesn't care about us."

This comment got some attention at Laurel City Hall and Mayor Moe asked his staff to compile a list of the recent investment projects in Oldtown. I hesitate to post the list because it's an embarrassment of riches and I really don't want to start a squabble with other neighborhoods.
But since you asked here is the Mayor's list of appox. $8.9 million dollars worth of Oldtown projects:

Parks and Recreation Projects
Pool Renovations, 2003-2006, $613,000.
Armory Renovations, 2004-2006, $200,000.
McCullough Field Renovations and enhancements, 2005-2008, $592,000.
Riverfront Park Playground, 2006, $40,000.
Riverfront Park Pavilions, 2005, $20,000.
Riverfront Park Bathroom, 2008, $12,000.
Emancipation Park Playground, 2007, $50,000.

Scheduled Parks and Rec Projects
Riverfront Park Extension, 2009, $100,000.
McCullough Field Pavilion, 2009, $20,000.
Mill Dam Ruins Renovation, 2009-2010, $325,000.
Riverfront Park Interpretive Signs , 2009, $22,000.
Armory Renovations, 2009-2010, $375,000.

Public Works Projects (Total approx. $5.5M from 2003-2008)
Repaved all of Main Street from the MARC Station to 7th Street
New brick pavers for the sidewalks from the MARC Station to 7th Street.
Route 1 SB & NB completely reconstructed and new sidewalks from the County line to Rt 198.
Various additional street improvements and repaving on Montgomery and 8th Streets
Installed 229 traditional lampposts on Main Street and Rt 1. ($750K!)

You gotta love living in a town where a blog comment is made on Tuesday night and the Mayor provides a detailed response on Thursday.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Laurel Commons TIF Tiff?

Our Laurel City Council will soon be deciding if the city should invest in the Laurel Commons Mall project in the form of a TIF. It's a complicated issue and citizens have strong opinions. The TIF is creating quite a tiff. I'm sure council members are not taking their decision lightly.

A lot of us are talking about the TIF. Some folks are opposed to any form of public financing. There is a lot of public financing going around these days. From bailouts to buyouts and people are getting fed up. "Bulldoze the mall and build a park." "Why should my taxes be used to bailout a developer?" "We don't need anymore retail in Laurel."

Other people want to understand all the details, "Will the city be left holding the bag, if the mall redevelopment fails?" How can we be sure that the developer accomplishes what they promise, they still haven't even started to tear down the parking deck like they said 2 years ago?" "Why aren't we getting any high end stores like Columbia Mall?"

The Mayor sees the Laurel Commons project as necessary for the long-term economic success of our city. He believes that we need to redevelop the mall and use it as the engine that drives redevelopment along Laurel's Route 1 commercial core.

This is both a complex and often emotional issue. It's hard to explain and even harder for the experts, let alone laypeople to understand. This is not an envious position for any city council member. But don't fear, I think that our TIF tiff took a positive turn over the last few weeks. And it's because of the dedication of a couple of real Laurel heroes.

We often think that public heroes are like the brave firefighter who rushes into the burning house. But there is another kind of hero who rushes headlong into thorny, public policy debates. I'll get to our heroes later, but first let me recap our story.

A TIF is a form of public financing. A developer asks the local government to provide some of the funding for public infrastructure improvements associated with a project, for example, parking facilities, roads, or street lights.

The government borrows money (sells a bond) that is used to finance the infrastructure improvements. But there is a twist. Instead of the government directly paying off the bond over thirty years, like my mortgage, the government uses the development's property taxes to pay off the debt. The TIF concept is based on the assumption that the improved property's value will increase over time because of the new development. With TIF, the bond is paid off by using a part of the future "tax increment."

The Laurel Commons developers asked the county and the city to finance over $30 million of public infrastructure improvements. The Prince Georges County government bailed out of the deal early. That left the city to decide if and how much to invest.

Now our two heroes enter the story.

Jim McCeney went to the TIF public hearing a couple of weeks ago. Jim spent many years as a financial officer of a large corporation. He had a lot of questions about the TIF. He was trying to understand the deal in all of its details. He really wanted to know if the TIF was viable and if the developer failed at some point in the life of the deal, would the city need to pay more than we bargained for? Was this TIF the right deal for this city at this time?

At the public hearing, Jim pressed his TIF questions. City staff and consultants provided answers to the best of their ability at this point in the process. But Jim was not fully comfortable that he understood the details.

A lesser policy hero would've stopped at this point. It would have been easy for Jim to just drop it and move on. He is just a citizen. He has other things to spend time on. But Jim didn't drop it. He called around. He asked more questions. He asked for a meeting with the administration and their consultants. He spent a lot of his time. And at the end of the day, Jim got answers to his questions.

This is when Kristie Mills, another dedicated policy hero enters our story. Kristie is the city's administrator. She is the big boss, after our elected officials. Kristie is the day-to-day manager of the city.

I don't know if Jim inspired her to do it, but Kristie ran into all the confusion and fog of the complex TIF issue and she made magic. She wrote a briefing, in plain English, that we can all understand. You can read her briefing on the City's website. Here is a little bit of it.

• A TIF can only be used for public improvements.
• It cannot be used for any private purpose.
• The property owner is responsible for the remainder of the financing package.
• The numbers will be defined in the ordinance as "not to exceed".
• There is no financial risk to the City with the TIF Special Obligation Bonds.
• Payment of the TIF Special Obligation Bonds is derived from the real property tax revenues.
• The Administration believes this is the best package they can offer while still protecting the City now and in the future!

I recommend that you take a few minutes and read Kristie's whole briefing. It's very easy to follow.

The city council still has difficult TIF decisions to make. Council chambers are often frightening places. However, I think we all owe a debt of thanks to our public policy heroes Jim McCeney and Kristie Mills. They went above and beyond the call of duty and we will all make more informed decisions because they did.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Maryland Task Force on the Future of Growth and Development

City of Laurel Development Director, Karl Brendle sends along the following:
"Despite current economic conditions, an additional 1.3 million people are expected to move to Maryland by 2030. The Maryland State Task Force on the Future of Growth and Development is charged to re-examine development policies to try and minimize the effect on this new population growth. I represent the Maryland Municipal League planners on the Task Force. I would be happy to entertain any questions, or relay concerns about development issues at kbrendle@laurel.md.us" - Karl Brendle

It only took me 10 minutes to take the survey. And if you have questions, there is nobody better than the Professor Karl to answer.

Karl has 25+ years of experience in the development trenches here in the Mid Atlantic region working for both developers and governments alike. Laurel is very fortunate to have a man of his experience and reputation looking out for our city’s best interests. Karl doesn’t just work here...he also lives right here in the city. He is one of our Oldtown neighbors.

Regards,

rick

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Task Force on the Future of Growth and Development

The Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) announced the formation of the Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development at the beginning of 2008 (see Press Release dated January 7, 2008). This Task Force was formed under House Bill 773 and was signed into law last year. The 21-member Task Force is charged with studying a wide range of smart growth and land use issues effecting Maryland. A final report is due by December 1, 2008. The term of the Task Force, however, extends through 2010, serving as an advisory board to the Governor’s Smart Growth Subcabinet.

Upcoming meetings, dates and locations (subject to change)
Monday, October 27th at MDP Office in Baltimore, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Wednesday, November 12th at MDP Office in Baltimore, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Monday, November 24th, (Location TBA if needed)

Make a Difference in Maryland for Future Generations

You can help chart the future of growth in Maryland’s communities. The Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) and the Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development in Maryland invite you to participate in a survey informing their work on recommendations and strategies for sustainable growth in the State.

Click here to take the survey!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Laurel Commons

The Laurel Commons redevelopers provided me with a few interesting drawings that show how the property will look when completed. See the Leader's recent story.

The TIF issue is still not resolved. The County does not appear to support a TIF. Either the County Executive or our local County Council Member, Mr. Tom Dernoga, must sponsor the legislation and neither has done so at this time.

The lack of County support for a TIF will make the City Council's support politically difficult. I don't hear a lot of support for a city-sponsored TIF from my Oldtown neighbors.

Please click on any graphic below for a larger image.

My thanks to Ms. Calista Black, Marketing Manager, Laurel Commons, General Growth Properties, Inc.

Hopefully the architects will soon provide their own web page with better graphics. These drawings are really worth seeing in high resolution.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Only 3 days left ...

The registration deadline to vote in Maryland is this Tuesday, October 14th at 9:00pm.

TO CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION:

Visit this website to check to see if you are registered and to locate your polling place:
http://www.mdelections.org/voter_registration/v2/vote_prod.php

TO REGISTER:

Download and complete a
Voter Registration Application and bring or Fax it to:
Prince George's County Board of Elections, 16201 Trade Zone Avenue, Suite 108 Upper Marlboro, MD 20721 Hours of Operation: Monday - Friday, 8:00 A.M. - 4:30 P.M Telephone: (301) 430-8020 Fax (301) 430-8080 Directions

The Prince George’s County Board of Elections will also be open today October 11th from 9:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. to accept voter registration applications.

FOR ABSENTEE BALLOT:

The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the General Election is as follows: Download Absentee application. If the application is mailed, 4:30 p.m. on October 28, 2008; or If the application is faxed, 11:59 p.m. on October 28, 2008.

FOR SAMPLE BALLOT:

You can visit this page to view a SAMPLE BALLOT for the STATE OF MARYLAND, PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY: http://www.mdelections.org/voter_registration/v2/general_2008/Prince%20Georges/BS%201.pdf

PROBLEMS:

Please contact the MD Board of Elections: http://www.elections.state.md.us/voter_registration/index.html or call: 1-800-222-8683.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Laurel Main Street Businesses Profiled

Renita Young is a broadcast student from Chicago who is finishing her degree in Washington. She recently produced a 2 minute video for Medill News Service about how Laurel’s Main Street businesses are dealing with the slumping economy.

Featured interviews include: Sherron Algarin of the Changing Faces Boutique, Jessica Emery of the Gallery, and Gary Haymes of the Take it or Leave it Consignment shop. Unfortunately, since the piece was taped the Consignment Shop has announced that they are closing.

This short piece is well done and it shows the power of a free blogging site coupled with solid video storytelling skills. Hyperlocal journalism at work.

Click here for the video: http://renitadyoung.blogspot.com/2008/10/kind-of-dragmain-st-businesses-slow.html or here for a bigger picture: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=100151

10/9/08 update - Turns out the Medill website has an entire multimedia package about Laurel's Main Street. http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=100281

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Councilmember Sarich to Retire

Three term Laurel Councilman Mike Sarich told me tonight that he plans to retire at the end of his term this September.  He wrote in an email a few minutes ago that he is working on a brief statement to be released soon.  

Mike Sarich has served on the city council since 2002.  He prided himself on being the council's maverick, often voting alone.  In tonight's email he  wrote that his council service has often been a joy, occasionally been painful, but it was always an honor.

Short Takes

1. I hear that cheeky lizards taste pretty good.   The one in the photo has made his last annoying commercial.   Red or white wine with reptiles?

2. An interesting story about Columbia's Symphony Woods.  Not everything is what it seems.

3. Don't tell Joan Fitzgerald but I'm writing my first post with my brand new Apple Macbook.  

Thursday, July 10, 2008

School Board Questioned

‘‘This is like building a garage on your house when your kitchen and bathroom are falling apart,” state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington said of the decision to delay funding on proposed high schools.

The Gazette has a story detailing concerns from some county leaders regarding the recent vote of the Prince Georges County Board of Education's to lease a new administration building. Even the Superintendent questioned their actions. The Gazette story continues ...

"The decision, which went against recommendations from Superintendent John E. Deasy, came one day after the county announced it was facing a $48 million shortfall in funding that would cause widespread cutbacks."

I wonder what in the world is really going on for the Board to be willing to take so much political grief about this building lease? They have not offered much of a defense for their action. There simply must be more to this story. The story we are getting just does not make sense.

Monday, June 30, 2008

County Board of Education Feathers Own Nest

The Prince George's County Board of Education went through with their plan to lease a new building for themselves. The school board approved their plan by a vote of 6-4 to lease 212,558 square feet of office space for $36 million over 10 years for 1,000 administrative employees. Rosalind A. Johnson, Laurel's School Board Member (District 1), voted for the lease. Please see the Gazette's story for the details.

Laurel area schools have over 100 million dollars in deferred maintenance according to the school board's own consultants. It seems imprudent to commit to a new administration building at this time. For the background on this issue please see: http://conexshuns.blogspot.com/2008/05/kindergarten-refresher-for-pg-school.html

Laurel City Attorney Opinion on Polling Places

Robert Manzi, Laurel City Solicitor, rendered his opinion on Councilman Mike Sarich's memorandum about the city's lack of a polling place in ward two. Mr. Manzi introduces his legal analysis as follows:

In his Memorandum, Councilman Michael B. Sarich discusses his concerns that the
City of Laurel’s current election system may be violation of local, state and federal laws and regulations. Primarily, he argues that there is a need to add at least one polling place in the city. He also argues that there is a need to redraw election boundaries, as the populations in the two Wards in the city are uneven. He also warns that if the city "willfully and knowingly potentially violate" the local, state and federal elections laws, the City may face intervention from the courts. Moreover, in his press release, he warns that failing to take corrective measures prior to the upcoming September 2008 elections will jeopardize the validity of the election.


This memorandum will not discuss the possibility of placing an additional polling place in the city or redrawing district lines, as the Mayor and City Council are currently conducting a study on this issue in light of the changes in the population since the 2000 census. Instead, this memorandum will discuss whether the upcoming election in September 2008 can be overturned if the City does not add at least one polling place and redraw its current Ward boundaries, as suggested by Councilman Sarich.

Mr. Manzi concludes with the following statement:

Based on the above, it is evident that the lack of a second polling place and/or the failure to redraw the Ward boundaries prior to the upcoming September 2008 election will not invalidate the election.

You can read Mr. Manzi's 2000 word opinion on the city's website.

Oldtown Gardener Wins Golden Shovel

Kimberly Bristol of 328 Laurel Avenue won the city's "Golden Shovel" Award for June. See the City's website for photos. Kimberly's manicured yard and extensive garden are very worthy of an award. I've watched her diligently improve her property for a number of years. This year she added grape vines. She told me that she has both red and white grapes. I'm looking forward to tasting the wine. Congratulations and thank you for making our street so much better.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Laurel Commons Drawings

If you did not attend the recent town hall meeting, Keith over at the Laurel2020 Blog has the story on the artist renderings for Laurel Commons. http://laurel2020.blogspot.com/2008/06/commons-town-hall-info.html

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake ... & Danish & Flan & Bread

"The fine arts are five in number, namely: painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and architecture, the principal branch of the latter being pastry." Marie-Antoine CarĂªme (1783-1833)

Me, on the phone: "What kind of bakery are you?"
Baker: "Today we have baguettes, yesterday we had olive bread, what kind of bread would you like tomorrow?"
Me: "I'll be right there, don't move."

There is nothing I crave more than fresh bread. One of my favorite sayings is that, "life is too short to eat stale bread." This past week a new bakery has risen in Laurel and no one needs to eat stale bread ever again.

Csilla Baez-Tanczos and her partner Eligia Vallecillo have opened the Ideal Bakery across the street from the Laurel Library at 603 7th Street, Unit 104.

Csilla is a white-coated pixie of a woman with an engaging smile and determined eyes. Csilla and Eligia met at L’Academie de Cuisine, a Maryland based culinary school. They went on to work together in the the food service industry until deciding last year to open their first business together here in Laurel.

Csilla (photo) is from Romania and Eligia is from Columbia and they have created a full service bakery focused on pastries and some breads.

All of their pastries are prepared on the premises and they range from well executed danishes and crescent rolls to the more unusual Latin pastries like flan and tres leches, a sponge cake with cream. This morning their display case showed off brownies, chocolate & raspberry croissants, cheesecakes, carrot cakes and shiny fruit tarts, to mention a few treats.

They offer coffee and soft drinks and few tables to sit and watch the action. They also have deli sandwiches made with fresh bread and salads for lunch and dinner. A hot food table and a catering menu are in the works.

Csilla is serious about her question concerning the kind of bread you want? She wants to hear from the neighborhood. I vote for San Francisco sour dough bread bowls filled with fresh clam chowder.

Mornings just got sweeter in Oldtown Laurel.

The Ideal Bakery is open weekdays from 6-8, Saturdays from 8-8 and Sundays from 8-4. Phone 301.497.1393. Tell Csilla you heard about her from the crazy Laurel blogger guy.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

When Politics Trumps Policy, Everyone Loses

Note - 17 Jun 2008 - Just in case you read this blog via RSS you may want to see the comments section to follow a very engaging discussion .

This week, Laurel City Council Member Mike Sarich published a press release calling for the addition of a second city polling location in ward two. In his message, Councilman Sarich opens with the following quote, "Laurel in potential violation of multiple election laws, Sarich says." He goes on to provide his findings in support of this conclusion drawing from his own twelve-page legal and quantitative analysis previously provided to the council.

Councilman Sarich concludes: "If we want to continue to willfully and knowingly potentially violate the above laws and guidelines, it is clear that Laurel may face intervention from the courts. In order to avoid this, Laurel should add at least one polling place and redraw its current Ward boundaries". You can find Councilman Sarich's complete press release here.

Laurel Council President Fred Smalls, on behalf of the rest of the City Council, responded with his own message Friday stating, "I, along with the other members of the Laurel City Council, are appalled by Mr. Sarich’s press release and its intentionally misleading, prejudicial allegations developed by his desire to preempt the election process."

Mr. Smalls' continues, "Mr. Sarich has made a bold attempt to publicly shame, embarrass, and discredit the City Council and the City of Laurel. The City Council will meet in special meeting on Monday, June 16, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. to publicly censure Mr. Sarich for his disgraceful actions." You can find Mr. Smalls complete press release here.

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I've been an advocate for a second polling place in Ward Two since I served on a city voter participation task force in 1994. However, I strongly disagree with Mr. Sarich's tactics. I'm afraid that he may have turned an excellent policy initiative into an election season political stunt. Everyone loses when elected officials let political agendas trump sound policy making processes.

- Rick

Monday, June 09, 2008

State Court Foolishly Upholds Sign Pollution

I think political signs are huge waste of time and a ugly blight on our landscape.

We traveled to Italy this spring to visit my number 1 daughter in Ferrara and I discovered that the Italians have tamed these ugly beasts quite well by insisting that all political signs be posted together in common areas.

In Italy, political campaigns must use the sign boards conveniently placed around town like you see in this photo on the left. The sign boards are only available during the election season. (Please click on any photo to enlarge.)

Today I read that we will never be able to control these signs in Maryland because U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake has struck down a Baltimore County law restricting political signs, deciding that time limits violate free speech. She issued a written opinion on a suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of three former candidates and four Baltimore County residents who wanted to place political signs in their yards outside of the permitted dates.

By the way, below is a picture of candidate's sign from Ferrara, Italy, that sounds strangely familiar? Anybody ever hear of this guy before?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Laurel Commons Briefing

The Laurel Commons developers presented their plans for the revitalized mall tonight. I arrived late but here is what I heard:

- They have settled on the following anchors for the project, a Regal 14-screen cinema complex, a new Burlington Coat Factory store, the existing Macy's, and an 400 unit apartment complex located in the old Montgomery Ward's garage area. (My original number of 1100 was quite wrong. - grw)

- The developers are asking the city and the county to kick-in to help finance the project. This is called a TIF, or tax increment financing program. A TIF is a common tool for redevelopment projects. A TIF creates a public-private partnership for the purposes of obtaining public capital investment for infrastructure improvements.

The Storyline

The TIF story is pretty straightforward. For example, assume today that the mall owners pay $250 thousand dollars a year in city property taxes. This is based on the mall's value today. The developers are going to make investments in revitalizing the mall such that the mall's value increases along with the property taxes paid to the city.

Let's say that the mall reopens in 2010 and the owners now pay $1 million dollars in property taxes on the drastically improved property. Then the new increment in taxes would be $750 thousand ($1 million less the original $250 thousand we get today).

The developers want the city to use 60% of that increase (~$450 thousand) to pay off a bond that will be used for improvements. The city will still get the original $250 thousand plus the $300 thousand from the remaining increment ($750 - $450). The TIF is set at this 60% level for thirty years. After 30 years, all of the taxes then go into the city's coffers.

In reality, the developers are looking for the city and the county to pay for a $36 million bond ($18 million each). The bond money will be used to pay for infrastructure improvements such as road and utility enhancements and new parking garages on the property.

It will cost the city approximately $47 million over 30 years to buy the $18 million dollar bond at a predicted 7.75% annual interest rate. But keep in mind, the city is paying the off this debt with the property tax increase (increment). Another way to think of it is that for every dollar in new property tax, the city keeps 40 cents and 60 cents goes to pay off the infrastructure debt.

My Conclusions

I'm a little disappointed in the anchor stores, but I'm realistic. The developers were stuck with the legacy of the smallest Macy's in the world and a long term lease with Burlington. Neither of those stores are currently useful to me or my family.

But in today's market, Laurel simply can't support the same stores as Columbia or Annapolis. Maybe over time, we could grow into more high-end stores. Redevelopment now could provide us with that opportunity later. I think the new Mall will be an attractive addition to the city. I'm looking forward to walking to the movie theaters and eating in the new restaurants.

I also support the TIF. If we do nothing, the mall continues to deteriorate and our tax base continues to erode. The deal they offered us tonight is significantly better than any other option we have and we might just find ourselves in a very strong position 5-10 years out.

I also don't think of the mall revitalization as a single isolated decision. In my opinion, it's the first move in a long-term strategy involving scores of properties along U.S. 1 from the Patuxent river south to Contee road. I see these properties as chess pieces on the city's game board. We have to plan our moves well today if we are going to thrive in the future.

Today, there are powerful development forces blowing through our region like BRAC, Green Line extended, Konterra, ICC and skyrocketing energy prices. These forces are rapidly changing our commercial and residential environment. We can't afford to wait. Have you seen Konterra? Those are billion dollar footsteps pounding just behind us. If we delay our revitalization decisions, we will lose. We must be smart and courageous.

We must look to the long term and plan multiple, mutually supporting, redevelopment moves today. We must be prudent. We must doggedly ensure the developer and the county comply with their parts of the deal. We must ruthlessly verify every detail. But we simply cannot afford to remain frozen in place. Laurel must have innovative redevelopment in our commercial core.

My Bottom Line

I want to see all of the fine print, but I believe that the Laurel Commons redevelopment proposal is a very reasonable and exciting first step. I also encourage the Mayor, City Council and the Prince George's County Council to support the TIF legislation.

Sorry for the long winded post. The story is complicated and I had to do some math. My 30 year bond payment calculation was based on the following fixed rate mortgage formula: c = (r / (1 − (1 + r) ^- N))P *N

The comments section is now open for you. What do you think about the Mall? Do you support the TIF? Please take the poll on the upper left side of this web page.

Full Disclosure: I served on the City's 2006-2007 Master Plan Advisory Committee.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Kindergarten Refresher for PG School Board?

"Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people."

There are few things more important to our community than our school system. This is why I was surprised to read this morning that the Prince George's County School Board has recently voted to invest $36 million dollars in brand, spanking new offices for themselves and their school administrators. Please see "Timing of School Headquarters Move In Pr. George's Is Criticized by Some."

I'm one of those criticizing them. Why would the administrators put themselves in better facilities than the children they serve?

"Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours."

When my children were in PG schools, I remember going to meetings at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro to discuss the massive amount of deferred maintenance in the schools. So I figured that if the school board was buying themselves new digs, they must have caught up on all their school maintenance problems. They would never put their comfort in front of the safety and comfort of the children they serve, or would they? Here is what I found on the PGCPS Board of Education web site.

In September 2007, PGCPS hired Parsons 3D/I to perform an updated facilities condition assessment of 184 facilities (15.3M gross square feet). The purpose of this assessment was to determine the present condition of the facilities and to prepare a capital improvement funding plan required to maintain them.

Some of their findings:
- Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are antiquated, inefficient, and in need of major upgrades and/or replacement.
- Food service equipment is on average in poor condition, and 65% of all food service equipment is beyond normal life expectancy.
- Most buildings do not comply with ADA accessibility guidelines.
- Substructures are showing signs of settlement and water infiltration.
- Exterior building systems are showing signs of aging and deterioration.

Laurel area public schools had over $100 million in maintenance problems:
- Laurel High $31,066,348
- James H. Harrison Elementary $7,136,720
- Bond Mill Elementary $7,248,003
- Laurel Elementary $7,452,009
- Oaklands Elementary $6,029,400
- Deerfield Run Elementary $13,070,210
- Montpelier Elementary $9,463,852
- Oaklands Elementary $6,029,400
- Martin L. King Middle $9,002,537
- Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle $20,395,757

"Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together."

So can somebody explain to me, why the board is willing to spend money on their own offices before they repair our schools? I must not understand some of the details. Maybe one of our board or county officials will explain it to us in the coming days. What do you think? Please post your opinion in the comments section.

"All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school."

Robert Fulghum is one of my favorite authors. He is famous for an essay about life from a kindergartner's perspective. Those are his rules from that essay in bold above. You can read more here.

-rick

Friday, May 23, 2008

As Gas Prices Rise: Laurel Home Values Will Skyrocket

I’ve been thinking about how we are going to survive the coming $6/gallon or worse extortion by the oil barons.

Part of the answer is living here in Laurel close to employment centers and on the Marc Train line. We really don’t appreciate how fortunate we are to have the Marc service in Laurel. Marc only costs us $3/day to commute to either downtown Washington or Baltimore on the heavily subsidized service. Today, Marc cuts your commuting cost in half, if you work in Washington or Baltimore.

I wanted to see how much living in Laurel was worth in terms of commuter savings. So I calculated the yearly cost of commuting to Rosslyn, VA. I assumed the federal government’s 235 working days year. I also assumed your car gets 30 mpg and I used current Marc, Metro and parking fees. I did not account for the public transportation subsidy programs that are offered by many government agencies. The federal program currently pays $110/month to qualified commuters.

I modeled four Laurel to Rosslyn commuting strategies. I estimated the one-way trip time and the total annual costs based on the price of a gallon of fuel.

1. Marc Train from Laurel to Union Station. Metro Train from Union Station to Rosslyn.
2. Metro Bus from Laurel to Greenbelt (routes 88/89). Metro Train from Greenbelt to Rosslyn.
3. Drive from Laurel to Greenbelt. Metro Train from Greenbelt to Rosslyn.
4. Drive from Laurel to Rosslyn.

Annual Cost @ $4/gal $5/gal $6/gal $7/gal $8/gal
1. Marc to Metro (75 mins) $1,575 $1,575 $1,575 $1,575 $1,575
2. Bus to Metro (90 mins) $2,468 $2,468 $2,468 $2,468 $2,468
3. Drive to Metro (60 mins) $3,701 $3,889 $4,077 $4,265 $4,453
4. Drive to Work (60 mins) $2,967 $3,368 $3,760 $4,151 $4,543

The Marc train from Laurel to Union Station is the best value at $6.70/day. You use your $125/month unlimited Marc Train Pass ($3/day) and then add in the $3.70/day for the Metro roundtrip ride to Rosslyn. There is no charge for your cardio walk from home to the Laurel Marc Station. The Metro Bus is the next best solution, but why ride the bus when the Marc is faster and cheaper?

Driving to Greenbelt and taking the Metro to Rosslyn will be the costliest commute until fuel gets closer to $8/gallon. The costs are so high because Metro charges $4.25 to park and $8.30 for your round trip to Rosslyn. Then you add in your fuel cost for the 24 mile roundtrip drive to Greenbelt Station.

Driving to Rosslyn means 50 miles a day on the road. At $4/gal and with an efficient 30 mpg car, it will cost you $6.70 for fuel and $6 for parking each day. I did not include the annual cost of having your head examined.

I commuted via the Marc Train during a year working on Capitol Hill. I read the paper and drank coffee on the way in to my office every morning. My Friday night commute home ritually included a bag of cashews and small bottle of wine. Try that on the Beltway.

p.s. I also really like the idea of brewing my own fuel. Have you seen these new home ethanol factories? Pump in water, electricity, yeast and feed sugar and you can make 35 gallons a week of pure ethanol for $1-2/gallon. Combine the ethanol factory with solar shingles and a typical Laurel family should be able to significantly cut both our energy bills and carbon footprint.

p.p.s. I hope the oil barons find a tasty way to eat all the crude oil that we won't need.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Shared Memories Make Us Stronger

Every Memorial Day weekend for many, many years, Former Mayor Bob DiPietro and Rev. Warren Litchfield lead a brief ceremony at Ivy Hill Cemetery. This year’s memorial service will be held on Sunday, 25 May 2008 at 11 am.

Every year a large group of citizens, fire fighters, police officers, and former and current military service members gather at the cemetery for about an hour to remember why we must have a day for memorials.

If you come every year, you already understand why and we’ll see you Sunday. If you have never attended this unique Laurel tradition, you owe it to yourself to come and see one of the very best things about living in a small town.

It’s always a brief and moving service. A few short speeches, an honor guard, the American flag is raised and a brief prayer of remembrance is said for all of those who have served, who continue to serve and who have died serving our community and our country.

The city’s sounds seem to quiet for a few minutes. The breeze rustles the late spring leaves. Friends, neighbors, young and old comrades in arms stand straighter as the bugler blows Taps. We come each year to remember that along these rows of headstones and monuments, we remain tightly bound to them and to each other.

President Abraham Lincoln once remembered a large and bloody struggle for freedom. His remarks were brief as well and they remembered events in another small town about 70 miles North of Ivy Hill Cemetery not unlike Laurel. I can’t help thinking as I read the ending of his famous address below how appropriate his words are for us in our own small community 146 years later.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not
hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have
consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will
little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget
what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to
the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly
advanced.


It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before
us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under
God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by
the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Sunday 25 May, 11 am, Ivy Hill Cemetery on Sandy Spring Road

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Giant Pool of Money: Housing Bubble Explained

According to the proposed FY2009 budget, the property within the city of Laurel is worth a total of $2,288,481,268. But of course this value is based on property assessments that were calculated while real estate in this region was surfing the housing bubble. The challenge will be to see how our residential and commercial real estate values fair over the next few years.

I have been trying to figure out this housing bubble business for months now. Two years ago, real estate prices were climbing to dizzying heights. Today they are wiping out in a death spiral.

Why? Where did all the money go? Who caused this problem? Should I blame West Laurel for this irrational exuberance? Is it Jack Johnson's fault? Will approving slots make it better? Why would banks arm wrestle each other to see who got to give a $400K interest-only loan to my unemployed tabby cat in 2005? Who got paid off? Why did we get left holding the litter box?

I'm a big fan of a radio program called "This American Life" hosted by Ira Glass. It is one of the best shows on public radio. They recently broadcast a show that answered all of my questions called, "
The Giant Pool of Money." The show runs an hour and I recommend it to anyone trying to understand what caused the housing credit bubble. I found their experts easy to understand and compelling.

You can listen to the show on your
computer or download it to your portable mp3 player via iTunes. I found it to be a valuable way to spend an hour. Besides, I don't have much else to do since my tabby cat's house went into foreclosure last month. Does anyone need a used litter box?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Disappointment

I'm disappointed. It seems that far too often American political debates and policy disagreements degrade into personal attacks. I fear that these attacks cast a corrosive fog over the entire process. Why would any reasonable person want to stand for elected office in this environment? Where will we find tomorrow's leaders?

The national election campaigns are notoriously vicious but personal attacks are occurring even at the local level. For example, the comments that were posted in response to last week's ethics story got totally out of hand in my opinion. I am so disappointed about some of those comments that I'm considering disabling comments.

I have not made up my mind because I'm torn between a desire to encourage healthy discussion of important local issues and my fear that every post during the upcoming Laurel election season will devolve into petty bickering and personal attacks. I wanted to create a cyber front porch where reasonable people could share their opinions on our community's goals, problems and solutions --- not a dark alley for attacking people.

The blogger.com software has three comment modes. I can turn comments on, turn them off completely, or moderate them. Moderate means that I must approve the comment before it is posted. I don't want to moderate comments because I have always strived for complete transparency here. I have only deleted two comments in the history of Laurel Connections. Both of these comments met my standard for an over-the-line ad hominem attack. I pulled the comments after they were posted.

It's been my experience that most of the people who seek local elected offices have dedicated many years to community service. Most are involved because they genuinely want to serve. If elected, many shoulder their civic responsibilities at great personal sacrifice to both family time and career progress.

Why should this blog provide a public platform that submits these fine people to unsubstantiated and anonymous personal attacks? That's neither helpful for them nor healthy for our community.

Have I allowed the commenters to go too far? Are the comments useful for you? Should I disable comments? Where is your threshold for an inappropriate personal attack?

Please tell me what you think.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Main Street 2008

I've got a secret that I know I share with many of my neighbors in Oldtown. Please don't tell the Laurel Board of Trade organizers because they work so hard to put on a good festival. But I like it when it rains on the morning of the Main Street festival.

Over the 27 years I've attended the Main Street Festival I've learned that a soaking morning rain knocks down the crowds just enough. The festival is better when the crowds thin out. You can walk down the street and see the booths. You run into more of your neighbors and can have a chat without getting pushed downstream with the unceasing flow.

This morning's festival started in a heavy rain. The organizers, police, public works team, and the ever faithful Laurel Police Auxiliary were already working at o'dark thirty in a cold downpour.
I wish I had taken a photo of Auxiliary Police Officer Wayne Dzwonchyk this moning about 8am. He looked like a mud soaked dough boy in the trenches of France in WWI. The rain was running off of his hat and down his face as he sleepily flagged away yet another vendor's box truck.

The parade was soggy but everyone still had a good time. I especially liked the lawn mower racing team. All of our local elected folks made it out for the Parade. The ever dutiful 21st delegation from Annapolis braved the rain along with our County Councilman, the County Sheriff, our Mayor and all of the Laurel City Council members and marched down the street. Kudos too to the LHS marching band and the West Laurel Ragtaggers, they were all wet but still sounded great.

The skies cleared by 11 and the crowds were good but not unbearable. She-who-must-be-obeyed forced me to walk back up to Main Street at 3pm to eat a sausage sandwich and have a lemonade. Chalk up another Main Street Festival and Happy Mother's Day to all.



Sunday, May 04, 2008

Laurel Leader Barely Gets The Story

The Laurel Leader's web-only story about Laurel City Council member Mike Sarich's ethics case left me barely informed this week. Their headline says, "Ethics panel clears Sarich — but barely." Unfortunately, the Leader never tells me that the panel decided unanimously in Sarich's favor. In other words, he was found innocent of committing any ethics violation. Not one member of the five person panel voted for finding a violation.

How does a unanimous decision rate a barely? Woman found pregnant, but barely ... makes about as much sense. Guilt or innocence, pregnant or not, these conditions demand a yes or no vote. It is not fair or even ethical to vote for one side but then turn around and call it the other.

I'm not taking sides on this case. I agree with the Laurel Ethics Commission that the rules on soliciting non-profits needs to be rewritten, both in Laurel and in Prince Georges County. The rules that allow our elected officials to act as bag-men for developer dollars has got to be stopped. If developers want to give money to local organizations, let them do it all by themselves.

The Mayor was doing his duty as chief executive officer of the city in bringing the case to the commission. But as far as the Sarich case is concerned, the allegation was made, the evidence was weighed and the panel voted. No ethics violation was found. The process worked.

I hope the Laurel Leader does the ethical thing and they fix their story in time for next Thursday's print edition.

Your comments are always welcome. Click the comments link below to post your opinion on this issue.

-rick

Update 5/5/2008. The Leader changed the story on their website today. The comments to this post are flying furiously. The Sarich effect has returned. Anonymous is even back! See the comments section for the complete discussion. - grw

Monday, February 25, 2008

We Should Call It Herbie!

The city just bought two new "green" vehicles.

Remember the Disney Love Bug movies? I think we should call one of the new cars Herbie and the other "Tennessee Steinmetz."

Don't you just feel like grabbing one of these vehicles by the roof and going, vroom, vroom?

See the Mayor's blog for the rest of the story.

For a ride down memory lane, watch Herbie.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hopeful Sign of Spring

A Sunday afternoon walk along the Patuxent River. The first sign of spring? Thanks to Gary H. for pointing them out.

Does anyone know what kind of flower this is? The flowers are about 1 inch long.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Extra Crispy

A half a dozen fire trucks responded to a fire at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant on Washington Blvd. today.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sunday Stroll in Riverfront Park

This is the little steel foot bridge fifty yards east of the Avondale Mill site in Riverfront Park. Its metal surfaces have rusted to match February's colors.

We bought a new digital camera. It has more buttons than I can possibly learn to use in a year. So if you see me walking along trying to read a manual and squinting at a camera, you'll know that I'm trying to learn a few more buttons this weekend.

Do you have any interesting pictures of people, places or incidents in or near Laurel? I'd be happy to link to them. Please contact me via g dot rick dot wilson at gmail dot com.

N.B. (You can click here for a much larger image. )

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Tunu Made Me Do It

Have you ever had one of these magical evenings at a new restaurant?

It's a chilly, rainy evening. You're weary of the familiar neighborhood spots. So you decide to try a totally new place that's still close to home. When you arrive you're treated like a favorite regular, shown to a warm table and then served one of the best meals of your life. After finishing off the last of the wine, you sit back totally satisfied and wonder why it took you so long to try this place.

Last night Joanne and I had this kind of magical experience at the Trapeze restaurant in Fulton, Maryland. Although we've been talking about the Trapeze since it opened, we had not yet made the 5 mile trek out rt 216 to the Maple Lawn area. We also had the chance to catch up with a old Laurel friend. But first to the food.

We started with jumbo shrimp, served unusually in a bread cup and drizzled with a lightly spiced, garlic butter sauce. Joanne's main event was the fried monkfish with a balsamic reduction. I had the pepper crusted Ahi Tuna, seared perfectly to medium rare. The sushi grade tuna was paired exquisitely with a delicate wasabi sauce that did not overpower the tuna. A fruity Pinot Grigio was the perfect accompaniment to the shrimp, our fish and our mood.

We also had the chance to catch up with Mark Steckbeck, Trapeze's Director of Operations. Mark, originally from Laurel, is an old friend who we had not seen in years. Mark has been a leader in the fine dining industry for a long time and is associated with the Trapeze and its sister restaurants, Nottinghams in Columbia and the Bluestone in Timonium. We enjoyed reconnecting with Mark and learning about the Trapeze.

Tired of the same old, same old? Looking for reasonably priced but fine food in a casual setting not far from home? Please do yourself a favor and try the Trapeze. Please say hello to Mark, and be prepared for a warm, filling and memorable evening out.

N.B. Be sure to check out the Trapeze website. They have a clever video called "Fish Tales."

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bella Rosa Cafe Opens

Coffee is a necessity. It's simply not optional. It's as important as food or air. Coffee is one of those self-evident truths that made America a great nation. Coffee is vital for public safety, that's why you see so many policemen hanging around donut shops.

I'm happy to announce the grand opening of the Bella Rosa Cafe at 504 Main Street. Meriem and Kass Atouani opened their cafe in the building that previously housed the Something Special Coffee Shop. The Bella Rosa Cafe offers plenty of hot gourmet coffee, fresh pastries and whole beans for your grinding delight.

Members of the Laurel Yacht Club participated in this morning's grand opening festivities. The Laurel Yacht Club, founded in 1995, is an informal collection of Main Street oddballs, malcontents, neo-luddites and occasionally, a few truly decent human beings. Not having any real boats, they hang around coffee shops and speak in nautical terms.

Their literature says that they, "... are a club without pier, concerned with plain folks, interesting people, strange places, insignificant facts, a story well told, fat-free muffins, politics, politicians and other scary things that go bump in the night. But mostly, they savor a good time, a great cup of coffee, and the warm company of friends and trusted shipmates."

Laurel is fast becoming the breakfast capital of the Mid Atlantic. I highly recommend that you check out the Bella Rosa for a cup of coffee with a splash of Oldtown community flavor. Stop in, introduce yourself to Meriem, wave hello to the Laurel Yacht Club and remember that ... Coffee is a civic duty.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Best Donuts in Laurel

I've never been in law enforcement but I do like a donut now and then. The Little Tavern Donut shop at 115 Washington Blvd has the best donuts I've ever eaten.

The owners don't just truck in bakery donuts from some faraway sugar factory. These donuts are made fresh everyday by hand.

My sins are the glazed donuts. They are soft as a cloud with a just the right amount of glaze.

The whole town is talking about these donuts. The coffee is good too. I'm happy to see the Little Tavern back in operation.
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