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One-third of MontCo development fund dollars go to Wheaton mall

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Local,Maryland,Brian Hughes
Montgomery County is on pace to devote $10 million to a single shopping mall in Wheaton -- or roughly one-third of funds reserved for wooing private companies to the area -- an investment in retail that critics say hardly bolsters economic development.

Since the inception of the county's economic development fund 15 years ago, Montgomery has spent nearly $25 million on more than 150 projects, or an average of about $167,000 each. The biggest award -- $6 million -- went to a Macy's parking garage at Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center. And now the county will spend another $4 million on luring bulk retailer Costco to the same mall.

In other words, $10 million of the roughly $30 million in the fund will be devoted to a single company, specifically for car-centric projects.

County Executive Ike Leggett argues, that without the mall as an anchor, Wheaton would further deteriorate beyond its current state of scattered strip malls and shuttered stores. But detractors counter that investment should be tailored to transit-oriented development and industries prompting retail growth on their own.

The massive investment in Westfield comes after Montgomery lost out on a handful of major corporate relocations to Fairfax County, such as Hilton Hotels and defense giant Northrop Grumman, and while Prince George's County looks to make historically big investment in development projects.

"Fairfax County is beating us; there's no question," said Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large. "We have to make ourself more competitive regionally -- grow our tax base. Quite frankly, a mall doesn't do that."

Those in charge of Fairfax's economic growth say they would not adopt the Montgomery model.

"We really don't go after retail," said Gerald Gordon, president and chief executive officer for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. "I've always believed if you attract the primary employers then retail will follow. You create the demand."

In fact, Fairfax County doesn't even maintain a local pot for relocations, instead choosing to match state funds for certain projects if it helps close a deal, Gordon said.

Though most Montgomery council members criticized the Costco grant, they signed off on the arrangement despite having to fill a $300 million shortfall, saying they didn't want to back out of a previous agreement with Westfield.

The mall operator posted a $1.1 billion profit last year.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner