LEONARDTOWN – J. Harry Norris III is worried that Leonardtown’s boom may go bust.
A new hotel opened six months ago. And in the 13 years that Norris has been mayor, specialty shops, cafes and restaurants have replaced vacant storefronts ringing the broad town square at the heart of the St. Mary’s County seat.
But two of three residential developments planned along the town’s west end and waterfront have fallen victim to the flagging economy. One developer is waiting for an improved economy and the other filed for bankruptcy.
“Slowing it down maybe wasn’t so bad,” said Norris, the town’s mayor. “But a halt is hard. Until you see it and see the trickle-down effect, you don’t really think about it.”
Leonardtown, and other small towns in Maryland, are anticipating Congress’ approval of billions in federal aid to states for water and road projects. Those projects, the mayors say, are the key to keeping the towns alive.
The aid is part of an economic stimulus package expected to cost at least $800 billion. It currently combines tax cuts with spending in such areas as highway and bridge repair, health care and unemployment insurance.
House Democrats passed a version without Republican support on Jan. 28. The Senate is currently trying to forge a bipartisan version that will satisfy concerns about the cost.
With small budgets and big needs, the mayors see not just new water towers and filled potholes, but also employment in a national economy that is averaging more than 500,000 jobs lost the last three months.
The effect of Leonardtown’s stalled development is palpable.
The owner of an excavating company recently said he would lay off 15 employees, Norris said. The slowdown also means finding another way to pay for the water main improvements that were part of the development agreements.
Norris’ wish list includes a $683,000 project to install residential water meters for the town of 2,200 and $485,000 in improvements to two water towers.
The town also owns two vacant buildings that a 20-farmer cooperative plans to use for a winemaking business. The project could benefit from business development funds, Norris said.
And a new elementary school being considered by the county could be funded with school construction aid contained in the stimulus legislation, Norris said. “We have a great educational system down here, but we need more schools,” he said.
Like Leonardtown, Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County has its sights set on water system improvements, specifically a $1.6 million water tower project, said Mayor Bruce Wahl.
The tower is necessitated by a new residential development that will eventually bring 200 homes to the town’s south end, Wahl said.
“We have drinking water, but if there were a fire up there and we were drawing a lot of water for fire, we wouldn’t be able to get the pressure up there that we’d need,” Wahl said.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has already approved the design, and the remaining permits should be received within two weeks, he said.
“I’ve been pushing our staff real hard to make sure we’re ready,” Wahl said.
In the Prince George’s County town of Forest Heights, Mayor Larry Stoner said no major repairs have taken place since his town’s incorporation in 1949.
“The infrastructure’s terrible,” Stoner said. “We’ve done some cosmetic repairs, but we need some extensive repairs with our streets, the town hall needs to be completely renovated, the roof needs to be replaced.”
State highway funds are used to repair the worst streets, Stoner said. But the piecemeal approach merely prolongs the need for wholesale investment in the town of 2,600, he said.
“You’re patching here, you’re patching there,” Stoner said. “But when you’re patching and doing things haphazard, you pretty much have to start things over.”
A mysterious outbreak of “springs” occurred during construction to replace the nearby Wilson Bridge, Norris.
“It didn’t happen until they started pounding on that bridge,” Stoner said. “They finished the bridge, but the springs, they’re still here.”
Told by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission that the outbreak did not involve its pipes, Stoner said he now needs to hire a geologist to investigate.
“What we need to do is get a big chunk of money and fix a whole lot of things at one time,” he said. “We are in need of an infusion of money.”