Frederick, minority businesses try to come together as redevelopment looms

By Alex Kirshner

Alan Feinberg has lived in Frederick, Md., for 20 years. He’s seen businesses open and close, people come and go. He’s seen the town’s immigrant and Hispanic population swell, to a point where Latinos make up almost twice as much of Frederick’s population as they do Maryland’s on the whole. And he’s watched as some of the city’s longest-standing residents have, in his view, resisted the influx.

“The bullshit is that people have been here a long time, think they know a lot. They don’t know shit,” Feinberg said. “They don’t appreciate what we have here. The vitality of a community is based on people bringing their cultures and enriching the place.”

Frederick, at least by the standards of its rural surroundings, has plenty of chances for enrichment. While Frederick County as a whole is just 8 percent Latino, the City of Frederick was at 14.4 percent at the time of the 2010 census. Many members of the town’s Hispanic population have started businesses, some of which now line the Golden Mile – a local stretch of Route 40 West known for its commercial district.  

The strife Feinberg mentioned between newer, minority residents of Frederick and predominantly white, older residents hasn’t been the only tension in town, however. For years, the prevailing notion around Frederick has been that the minority-owned businesses on the Golden Mile and Frederick’s city government are very much on different pages – that the business owners don’t trust the government, and the government hasn’t connected well enough with the businesses.

“Sometimes, with immigrant populations, there’s a little bit of a distrust between them and government,” said Matthew Davis, the City of Frederick’s division manager of comprehensive planning. “They don’t always believe we’re there to help.”

No one has a better handle on the business-government dynamic than Dr. Julio Menocal. He has practiced medicine in Frederick since 1985, treating mostly members of the city’s Hispanic community. He is Hispanic himself, and he opened his current shop, Menocal Family Practice, on the Golden Mile in 2006.  

The city government wants to be helpful toward Hispanics, Menocal said, only it has faced a communications deficit. One reason why is jarring.

“When it comes to public money and public funds,” Menocal said, “people just have a hard time dedicating public funds to folks to people they perceive as being here illegally.”

Counting undocumented immigrants is no easy task. But at Menocal’s vaccination clinic, he estimated 60 percent of his patients are Latinos. Of those, he said, two-thirds are the children of undocumented immigrants, who themselves are also a portion.

Menocal said interacting with the city’s government – and securing necessary services for businesses and customers – is made harder by the in-limbo legal status of so many in Frederick’s Latino community.

“Nobody has been directly negative with me,” Menocal said. “The lines of communication, rightfully so, are difficult.”

To help smooth relations, Frederick has turned to a group of graduate students at the University of Maryland in College Park. Through the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability, the students are surveying minority businesses and working to bring them and the city administration into harmony. It is a tall order, especially as the city looks to build and develop along the Golden Mile.

“Frederick is an interesting locale,” said Rommel Calderwood, the coordinator of the outreach initiative. “It’s in a relatively rural location, but it also has a lot of diversity, and so with the plans to redevelop the Golden Mile area, how’s that going to impact the people who live and work there?”

The students’ program, affectionately and ironically abbreviated to “PALS,” has worked since the fall to gather information about Frederick’s minority businesses and evaluate solutions that might make the city’s governance more inclusive toward them.

Kiel Edson, the PALS program coordinator, said students were positioned to get straightforward data about the relationship between business and government.
“It’s hard for government to get as honest an answer as third-party students,” Edson said. “They’re completely unbiased. They just want to know what’s important to these businesses, and a lot of them are minorities themselves or are bilingual.”

Willow Lung-Amam, the Maryland faculty member who has headed up the outreach, wants to open the lines of communication Menocal said have been closed.   

“Asking them, 'What are your needs for your cities, schools, neighborhoods?' It's an important part of not only making plans that reflect the needs of communities,” Lung-Amam said. “It's also important from the standpoint of effective implementation.”

Communication, all parties agree, is vital. Never more so than now, as the city moves forward on sweeping redevelopment plans along the Golden Mile. Two winters ago, the government approved what it has dubbed the “Small Area Plan.” It is a vision to renovate and rebuild pockets of Frederick’s onetime commercial epicenter, planned around construction of a new Walmart in the largely abandoned Frederick Towne Mall.

Decades ago, as newer, nicer retail hubs opened closer to Frederick’s downtown area, customers took their money away from the Golden Mile, said Juan Carlos Rosa, an ad-hoc counselor to el Centro Hispano de Frederick, the city’s dominant Hispanic community organization. The new redevelopment plans are an effort to bring some of that business back toward Route 40 West.

“As the commerce moved, so did the money from the area,” Rosa said. “At that point, the Golden Mile turned into sort of a destitute desert of business.”

Today, the businesses along the Golden Mile are hotspots for diversity, Rosa said. Many, thought not all, are minority-owned. Minorities and whites, he said, comprise the businesses’ customer bases together.

“You can go from a completely Hispanic hairdressing or barber shop, where they only speak Spanish,” Rosa said. “And then you go across the street, where they only speak Spanish, and you go to a pizzeria and you get a completely different atmosphere.”
But those who run many of the businesses still struggle to make ends meet.

“If diversity had a value, if you could put a dollar figure on it, they would be rich. But that’s not the case,” Rosa said.  

The Small Area Plan has already passed. The city’s current challenge – which PALS is also tackling – is to help current Golden Mile businesses prepare for the impending arrival of a retail giant like Walmart. That means explaining both the good (more traffic near the Walmart and potential spillover to small businesses) and the bad (problems competing with Walmart’s low prices) for existing businesses.
Over 1,500 people have signed a petition urging Frederick to block the Walmart project, but all seems set for it to go ahead anyway.

“Walmart will come,” Hughes said. “So how will the businesses stay viable?”
PALS wants to help local shops find out the answer.

Over the last several months, Rosa has shepherded groups of Lung-Amam’s students up and down the Golden Mile on informational tours – passing out brochures about the Small Area Plan and soliciting the businesses’ opinions through surveys. Rosa acts as a translator and facilitator, while graduate students like Winstina Hughes and Chris Davis bring PALS’s message from door to door.

Hughes and Davis do not live in Frederick, but they’ve arrived at similar conclusions as Menocal, the doctor who has practiced there for decades. Communication, again, stood out as a problem, in exceedingly obvious ways. They found the city’s English-only language rule for government documents to be especially cumbersome in communicating with Latino and Asian-owned businesses.

Before PALS ever took an interest in the government-business relationship, the government distributed surveys to minority businesses to gather input on redevelopment matters. The response rate was abysmal, Davis said.

“They’re only producing it in English, and some of these business owners’ primary language isn’t English,” Davis said. “That’s a pretty big stumbling block.”

So, too, is bureaucracy. Frederick’s building code lengthens supposedly simple processes, like changing building signage to appeal to passing drivers, the students said. They came across one business owner who has struggled to update the sign on the outside of his store to make it more visible to drivers on Route 40.

“Businesses have to go through landlords, who have to apply,” Davis said. “It’s a very, kind of, extended process. You’d think it’d be relatively simple.”

Feinberg, the longtime Frederick resident, pointed out that many of the challenges facing minority-run businesses today are not unique in American history.

“People that don’t know any better, that don’t know all the rules and regulations, don’t speak the language all that well, they are brave souls,” he said. “Like my grandfather was.”

The minority business community has raised other grievances – about bus routes that either ignore or block traffic toward local businesses, or about overbearing police officers they claim have targeted Hispanics unfairly.

Businesses and the city, it seems, have much to discuss.
“Obviously, whenever a city decides to redevelop an area, there’s concerns about, one, the horrible ‘G’ word of gentrification,” said Edson, the PALS coordinator. “And also just not including the minority communities in these redevelopment efforts.”

For months, Frederick has held meetings on the redevelopment process. Observers describe them as planning summits. The meetings take place in Frederick’s City Hall, which is nearly three miles from the heart of the Golden Mile, where the discussed redevelopment will actually go on.

“Oftentimes, scheduling time, attending, location – all of those can be issues,” Hughes said. “Why not bring these meetings to that area, so that the stakeholders are able to attend?”
It is an idea Frederick might consider. The PALS delegation planned to present its findings before a town meeting in mid-December, and while the city isn’t bound to follow any PALS suggestions, officials said they would take them seriously.

“Sometimes, there’s been that kind of mistrust, or they’re reluctant to reach out to us,” said Davis, the city planning manager. “I think it’s really just to make that bridge: ‘How can we help you be more successful? Are there things we can do?’”

As the city government and business community move forward, they have more to focus on than just redevelopment. In addition to the range of concerns accompanying new projects, Menocal pointed to minority-on-minority crime and transportation inefficiencies as factors holding back minority business growth on the Golden Mile.

Fostering fluid communication between long-disadvantaged minority groups and a local government turns out to be as hard as it sounds. But if it can happen, Menocal said, the payoff for minority-owned businesses could be enormous.

“The commerce would improve. People would be able to walk the streets. Hispanics spend their money in Frederick,” Menocal said. They buy their gas in Frederick. I think Hispanic businesses in Frederick City would flourish.”