Why is The American Conservative running a puff piece about Frederick, Maryland, regurgitating the hype we hear constantly from our tourism promoters and business go-getters. Erik Anderson’s suggestion that this city somehow competes with Georgetown is absurd. No internationally famous university here just a pair of mediocre local colleges, some decent restaurants true but not up there with G’town, no famous hospital, no cobble-stoned alleys or sidewalks, no old harborfront here or hilly sections and grand river views, no historic canal.
[This is a letter to the editor in response to a piece they ran June 16 from Erik Anderson: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/how-a-small-maryland-city-is-competing-with-georgetown/ ]
We do have a 1980s flood control project on top of which was built a canal flanked by landscaped promenades. Mr Anderson is correct in describing the Carroll Creek flood control project as a success. It is an attractive as well as a functional piece of public works that reflects well on City government. It is about the only project that does.
We share with Georgetown the valuable heritage of a tight 18th century grid of streets and a pre-zoning mix of uses that makes it an attractive place for suburbanites to visit in order to walk, browse, gawk, eat, walk, buy, look, browse some more, and drink. Under 40 miles from the Beltway this city is a popular day trip from DC at weekends. There are about a dozen downtown blocks of late 19th century townhouses, stores with apartments-over and heavily glassed pre-fluorescent lighting commercial buildings that make it a more interesting, if sometimes inconvenient place to live.
Mr Anderson, rather than relay the promotional puff of the City establishment could at least have hinted at the problems and misgovernment here. Median household income at $62,500 in Frederick City is well below the County’s $83,700 and also below the state average of $75,840 (2015 Census). Georgetown’s median household income is $138,500! We suffer considerable poverty and blight still, alongside the charm.
The City has not competed in attracting productive businesses and so it hasn’t generated enough well paying jobs. A quarter of the local workforce commutes to Montgomery County for jobs, another 15% to other jurisdictions of the greater DC metro area. Oversized, crony-racketeering local government makes it too difficult and expensive to generate decent jobs here. The problem is epitomized by the absence of any lodging establishment in the historic downtown larger than bed and breakfasts.
Nine years ago City government in Frederick started the process of getting a downtown hotel and conference center built. In 2010 they had the first of many consultants’ reports. All insisted that substantial taxpayer support was needed because the City had loaded down the project with a list of requirements that made no financial sense. Originally a $45m project it has inflated to $84m of which $31m is to be public funds ($16m state, $15m City and County.) Yet the City’s own financial consultant Municap valued the whole hotel complex on opening at only $30m based on prospective cash flows. At which point it should have been abandoned. The City persisted however going through the motions of a competitive procurement of a private ‘partner’ in February 2014 and announced in May 2014 it had two proposals on two sites.
It perversely chose the inferior, more difficult site, a site with two historic buildings (the rejected site was clear.) Hundreds of thousand of dollars have been spent by the City lobbying in Annapolis for state funding. Just a month ago it filed plans that require demolition of the last remaining 19th century leather tanning building that the Maryland Historical Trust says is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. This in Frederick’s designated Historic District. A huge fight is just beginning!
Meanwhile it turned out the competed procurement was a sham and the winning proposal had been submitted months BEFORE the request for proposals was issued. Scoring sheets showed the winning proposal given more points for historic preservation than the rejected proposal on a clear site.
We have no hotels downtown because City Hall shenanigans dictated that one favored hotelier be given tens of millions of $s of public money making it impossible for any self-financed hotel to compete. Prospective investors across the spectrum ask: what on earth are they thinking in Frederick’s City Hall? Mr Anderson might have at least given a hint of the price we pay for the misbehavior of our public officials here in Frederick.
I write about this project at frederickhotelboondoggle.us
Frederick MD 21701