Retail rumor mill in LaVale

[CHIPOTLE: Looking for the story on Chipotle coming to LaVale? Click Here.]

[UPDATE Feb. 2018: Freestanding Chick-fil-A Coming to LaVale.]

(Note: If you are reading this post in the first quarter of 2017, click here for an update.)

Originally Posted May 31, 2016

Hearing about what’s going on the corner of National Highway and Winchester Road in LaVale, Md., is like playing the telephone game.

Ask just about anyone in the area and they’ll give you what they heard about what’s coming to the former Hafer Chapel of the Hills Funeral Home at 1302 National Highway.

[Again, if you’re still reading this, this article was originally published in May 2016. On April 26, 2017, developer PennTex reached an agreement with Dollar General for 1302 National Highway.]

The problem is there is no paper trail giving anything away. At least no electronic paper trail. Writing about a retail rumor should give you an idea about how I go about reporting these deals.

These are just people in the community working different jobs that I’ve run into that have each heard the same rumor. Maybe from different people, maybe the same person.

Three different people told me a Five Guys Burgers and Fries and a Panera Bread was going there.

Another person told me there was supposed to be three restaurants there. And then another person said they heard that the third restaurant would be Dunkin’ Donuts.

I saw the same person who told about about Dunkin’ Donuts and said Five Guys isn’t going in—it’s going to be a building with Chipotle and Dunkin’ and that one of the local Fire Marshals signed off on the plan.

Well, none of this is panning out yet.

[Editor’s Note: Chipotle is coming here after all. Looking for the story on Chipotle coming to LaVale? Click Here.]

An Allegany County Government planner said he has no commercial site plan filed for that property and nothing from the fire marshal. Typically a site plan has to be filed first before a fire marshal gives an OK. If I really wanted to be aggressive, I’d call the appropriate fire marshals.

Now, that’s if the building is being razed and everything is being built new. What if an existing commercial building is being renovated for a new tenant?

In most jurisdictions, a building permit would be required to make alternations, in addition to plumbing, electrical and so on. Certain larger projects do have permits, like an extensive hotel renovation. But most of your strip center stuff will go undetected.

Allegany County doesn’t require building permits on most renovations, which is a surprise. I talked to an engineering friend who works on buildings in a large city and he was shocked and a little concerned.

Allegany County inspectors come in at the end to check over everything to sign off on a certificate of occupancy and then the doors can open.

So, that lack of a paper trail makes it challenging to track.

None of the four restaurants are advertising for jobs or construction bids yet in the area either.

And the property is still owned by the Hafer Funeral Home in Frostburg, according to property records. If a property has some challenges getting approvals, you typically won’t see a developer take a gamble. Instead, they take a lesser risk by purchasing the property conditional on approval of a site plan, and/or a rezoning if needed.

What’s odd is that PennTex Ventures, which opened the Winchester Court shopping center last year, is already advertising retail coming soon to the property and has a number up for leasing. The old funeral home is still standing.

They must believe this property is a sure deal coming soon or leasing agents need some leads. But that’s very bold if , as the planner told me, no site plan has been filed with the county.

What we do know is that Jeff Barclay, director economic development for Allegany County, discussed where the project was at the Dec. 17, 2015, county commissioners meeting.

Here is the summation from the minutes:

State Highway’s decision is pending regarding their traffic study, and there is a possibility that the decision may come tomorrow (December 18, 2015).

Commissioner Brodie commented that it has been a long time since he and Mr. Barclay met with Deputy Secretary Jim Ports about the property, and that he (Commissioner Brodie) was assured in September at the transportation meeting by District Engineer Tony Crawford that the project was going to be well underway and fast-tracked.  He pointed out that it was now almost Christmas, and he asked Mr. Barclay to let him know if the decision does not come through the next day.  

Mr. Barclay said that staff is anticipating a positive response from SHA, allowing them to then move into the plan submittal phase of the project. He added that one thing that has helped is that, initially, PennTex Ventures was anticipating putting a sit-down restaurant on the Hafer Funeral Home site, but is now considering instead a small strip center on the location [Ed. emphasis], which would alleviate some of the peak traffic in the evening hours associated with a restaurant.  Mr. Barclay went on to report that the developer has already spoken with several prospective tenants, who have indicated “build it and we will come”.  He added that the developer is close to a letter of intent from two fast-casual eateries for the end caps on the proposed facility. 

Commissioner Brodie asked that Mr. Barclay, when he finds out for sure when the project will be coming, let Brian Gowans (WCBC Radio) and Heather Wolford (Cumberland Times-News) know quietly as a heads up only for their information, not to report.  Mr. Barclay asked for confirmation that they would do that and agreed.

I added a few areas for emphasis above.

This conversation shows the property is a bit of a challenge for the design and traffic, so extra work has been done to clear up those issues before a site plan has been filed. It went from a single stand-alone sit-down restaurant to a strip center with two fast-casual eateries for the end-caps, which means there is room for other retailers, possibly restaurants.

A Chipotle will fill up a parking lot fast and Panera causes long stays—I don’t see how there would be enough parking for both on that small site plus a Five Guys. Dunkin is drive-thru oriented, causing a flow concern.

Now, that’s just one property that has rumors of its own. I’ve heard about a steakhouse coming to a pad site at the Country Club Mall in LaVale and heard about a shoe store (heard four different retailers–three of which make sense) at the former Western Sizzlin’, but that’s where the conversation ends until there’s you know, proof to report.

I just don’t know what to believe, and I can’t believe it until I see it.

Talking about plans

I do have to tow the line on one other issue. I’m on the other side of the desk, and it’s interesting to see an open discussion of asking reporters not to report something and having a government official saying both reporters agreed not to report until given the OK.

What it sounds like happen is the developer may have had a one-on-one meeting with a planner or director of economic development on a feedback session about what they’re thinking about doing before they submit a plan so they’re not wasting their time.

Those meetings are OK and in some jurisdictions, there’s an entire pre-submittal process that’s open to the public. I’ve attended those in Florida. In other cities, it might be a private scheduled meeting, but if there’s a paper trail, it has to come out depending on how you ask for it. I didn’t dive into my request any further than asking for a site plan.

On the news side, it can create distrust issues if you’re a veteran reporter knowing how to couch proposed projects and what’s coming and what’s not.

On the PR side, it does create some damage control to at least put a layer of protection in case something falls through.

What I would have recommended in this case is that the project was too early to even discuss in an open session of government. There is no site plan filed nor any request in to change restrictions on the property, so it’s risky to chat about.

If you don’t want a reporter to do a story faster than what you’d like, don’t tell them about the story. Even if they’re not at the meeting, they can still go back and read the minutes, or listen or watch the recorded meeting




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