Volume 12, Issue 26 ~ June 24-30, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Marooned with no Landmarks
Red sails in the sunset, far out on the sea.
—From a song popular more than 70 years ago

Well, the sails aren’t red, and they’re not far out on the sea — unless Parole has slid into the Atlantic since I last traveled Route 2 via Annapolis, which wasn’t many days ago. Regardless of their color and location, my favorite sails appear destined to be unfurled.

Perhaps you’ve guessed: The sails referred to are not of canvas, not attached to a mast, not even hoisted over water; nor do they flap and cackle during a nor’easter. Not these landmark sails; they’re landlocked, no hull beneath them — just a crumbling parking lot.

You might say they’re moored in Parole Plaza, have been for nearly 50 years, which isn’t old for a marina but certainly is for a shopping center. So I see by the newspapers the old and long abandoned Parole Shopping Center is destined to come down and be replaced by a fancy 32-acre complex of shops, bigger name stores, apartments, tree-lined ‘streets’, fountains, even a skating rink.

I’ve looked over the artist’s rendering of the proposed Annapolis Towne (that’s upscale for Town) Center at Parole, and it’s a beaut with its promenade; looks like an updated something you’d see in Mexico City. The only thing missing is a hiking trail — and those sails, which have been a landmark since the early 1960s. I’ll miss ’em.

I fear Annapolis Towne Center at Parole will become just a mall-promenade complex of the type you’ll find in any city across the nation. Nothing that says “this is Annapolis,” or to me, “you’re almost home.”
Parole’s Aids to Navigation
Over the years, Route 2 through Parole was my course when returning from fishing adventures in Deale, Chesapeake Beach, Breezy Point, Solomons and Scheible’s at the mouth of the Potomac. It still is my route of choice, primarily for sentimental reasons.

One gets weary after a day or two on the waters. The return drive is tiresome, the miles long. Spying the sails at the old shopping center was and remains reassuring: The journey home is almost complete, 25 minutes to go. Also, those sails are appropriate for Annapolis, as much as they were when first hoisted at a sparkling new and busy mall.

Now, it appears they will be replaced by what might be called high-rise condos (by Annapolis standards) that reach skyward much higher than the sails. There are other sails along Route 2 in the architect’s rendering, but the developer isn’t saying they’ll stay. I fear it will become just a mall-promenade complex of the type you’ll find in any city across the nation. Nothing that says “this is Annapolis,” or to me, “you’re almost home.”

What We Call Progress
But I guess that’s what we — or most folks — call progress: a continuation of new mega-shopping centers trying to outdo those that have been around a decade or two. It’s the fight for the buck of the shoppers. The bigger and fancier they get, the higher the rents, which means the more they must charge for their wares.

If we patronize them, we end up paying for all the glitz and such while wondering what ever happened to the small shops with character on this street or that in the city, even the shops we became familiar with at other shopping centers. Progress. The only thing this writer sees reassuring in the grandiose plans for Annapolis Towne Center is that it appears it won’t be anchored by Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart vs. Main Street
Look, I’ve got nothing real serious against Wal-Marts. Occasionally I shop them and concede they have more than multiple choices in what I seek, the prices save me money, there are name brands and there’s no hassle when seeking refunds if the purchased product isn’t up to expectations. That’s why Wal-Mart dominates the choice of so many shoppers. On the other hand, I note that the customer-friendly attitude and neatness within the mammoth stores aren’t so strong as before the chain went hog wild on expansion across the country.

But I get more than a little concerned when I read in the Wall Street Journal that one out of every three pair of jeans sold in America is purchased at a Wal-Mart. Think of that; one chain alone sells one-third of a popular piece of apparel among men, women and children. Awesome though worrisome. And the chain is expanding. What will be left for K-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penny and others including that favorite little shop on your or my Main Street?

Not on Main Street, Says Vermont
Main Street? I, and perhaps you, too, have seen Main Streets after Wal-Marts have moved in not too far down the road. There’s not much left of those Main Streets other than vacancies and shops converted to storefront churches or flea-market outlets. That’s why my home state of Vermont has been in the news of late. It’s fighting Wal-Mart; not all Wal-Marts but those humongous stores of 150,000 square feet. Isn’t 75,000 to 80,000 feet enough?

Vermonters are frugal. They want a bang for a buck but not at the expense of losing their downtown Main Streets to so-called big-box-ification. They want their communities, including downtown, to keep their character and vibrancy. They don’t want everyone driving a mile or so to the outskirts of the village to buy at a behemoth as big as an airplane hanger.

Vermont was the last state to get a Wal-Mart, and those there — four in all — with one exception are smaller than most we see of elsewhere. Getting into the fray is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which claims the super stores threaten the close-knit way of life in the Green Mountain State.

Watching the Chain Reaction
Presumably, those in Annapolis tend to think that same way, having fended off an original proposal for a giant Wal-Mart at Parole. All of this can go beyond just saving the character of shopping areas. When a chain becomes too dominant, there can be — pardon the pun — a chain reaction.

When it hogs the market, suppliers realize they must do business with it to keep percolating. The chain realizes that, too, so it can play a big role in determining prices. Profit margins by the producers are shaved razor thin, which can mean lower wages in manufacturing — and more merchandise from China, India or who knows where.

The bottom line: the chain plays a greater role than is healthy in the whole process. When it runs the show, the entrepreneurial spirit is history. Much of Main Street is boarded up, and the quality of living in smaller cities, towns and villages goes farther down than the chain’s prices. A vibrant spirit is endangered. Enough said ...

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.