It began with a conversation over coffee, according to organizers Susan Burkinshaw and Marilyn Balcombe. Some coffee and conversations and the idea to resurrect the Germantown Alliance and restore it to its former glory as both a sounding board and an advocate for the Germantown community was born.
The group took its first steps toward becoming a voice for Germantown last Thursday, when it held its first informal organizing meeting on May 28 at Black Rock Center for the Arts. After sending out open email invitations to community volunteers, organizers expected to have 10 or 15 concerned citizens attend the meeting, but were pleasantly surprised at the turnout of 43 people and the potential for the future.
“There was energy in the room Thursday night,” said Balcombe, who acted as co-chair of the meeting with Burkinshaw.
Once an important part of civic life in Germantown, the Germantown Alliance had all but disappeared in recent years. Formed in the spring of 1976, the Germantown Alliance grew out of an association of local church organizations and other civic organizations, volunteer citizens, and businesses. The Germantown Alliance would work together to be a unified voice for Germantown, it was instrumental in the lobbying the County Council to build Father Hurley Boulevard, but the group has fizzled out for about 10 years leaving Germantown without a unifying voice.
“We have had no community organization and Germantown has been growing like crazy,” said Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. “It has been frustrating and embarrassing to not have a community organization for a community the size of Germantown. Councilmember Craig Rice and I have been talking for a couple of years about how we didn’t have a community organization to do things like a parade or the Christmas tree lighting.”
While Balcombe and Rice were lamenting the lack of civic leadership in Germantown, Susan Bukinshaw, a Germantown resident and member of executive board of MCCPTA, was having similar conversations with Krista Bradley, executive director of Black Rock Center and Trish Heffelfinger the executive director of the Maryland SoccerPlex.
“Six-months ago I had coffee at Panera Bread with Krista and Trish -- who had never met,” said Burkinshaw. “Here are the two executive directors of two of the lynch-pin organizations in Germantown and they had never met each other. How could two community organization leaders not know each other? Much less how many other people in Germantown should be connected at this point and aren’t anymore? Out of that meeting came the idea to rejuvenate the alliance.”
“A number of Germantown activists including Marilyn Balcombe and Krista Bradley and others reached out to my office a few months ago to talk about bringing the Germantown Alliance back,” said Councilmember Craig Rice, who represents the Germantown area. “My office has long been seeking a voice that would represent the Germantown community as many other areas throughout the county have an organized group that represents the community. This is why I am so excited to see the Germantown allies coming back and such a strong presence at the meeting.”
Soon after Balcombe and Burkinshaw, who knew each other from being on the board of directors at Black Rock Center, agreed to look into using the Black Rock Center as meeting point and convening a community group. “We said lets meet for coffee and talk about it,” said Balcombe. “It was me, and Susan and Trish along with Craig Rice, and Christa Bradley and Cathy Matthews from the Upcounty Services Center.”
“We pulled a small group together,” said Burkinshaw, “and we brainstormed over coffee about who we should bring together. We thought maybe 10 or 15 people would show up. Clearly there is a need and a desire for this in Germantown. I am really excited to be a part of this.”
The new group, Germantown Alliance 2.0 as it was jokingly called at the meeting was made up of people from a cross-section of community organizations and is by no means closed. The Germantown Alliance is open all civic organizations, religious organizations, sports organizations, social organizations, as well as private citizens and members of the business community.
Leaders and representatives from many local and County organizations attended last week’s organizational meeting, including The Maryland SoccerPlex, Germantown Holy Cross Hospital, Montgomery College, local PTAs, and HOAs, the Montgomery County Department of Parks, the Black Rock Center for Arts, Black Hills Regional Park, Commander David Gillespie form District 5 Montgomery County Police, the Germantown Library, as well as State Delegates Kirill Reznik from District 39, and David Fraser-Hidalgo from District 15, along with Catherine Matthews, the Regional Director of the Montgomery County Government Upcounty Regional Office.
“We made a list of the key players,” said Balcombe. “The media, the library, Montgomery College, Holy Cross Hospital, and we just started inviting people. And 23 people R.S.V.Ped yes, and 43 people showed up.”
The Executive Director of the Maryland SoccerPlex, Trish Heffelfinger, said, “It was so gratifying to see so many people come to the kickoff meeting. And not only numbers but diversity. That’s Germantown. Diversity is our strength and I hope that will continue and people will become engaged. Together we can develop a real community spirit with events that bring people together. It’s very exciting.”
According the Susan Soderburg of the Germantown Historical Society, the Germantown Alliance labored to channel community needs into government action and was fairly successful in the first 10 years of its existence, mainly because it took the place of a local advisory council helping to mold Germantown.
Heffelfinger said, “In 1999 the Germantown Alliance was the ‘go to’ community organization when we were seeking approval of the SoccerPlex. Because the representation was so broad with businesses, residents, schools, and non-profits, the feedback was very valuable. You got a real community perspective and it helped us be better stewards as we built and managed the SoccerPlex.”
While the idea of incorporating Germantown -- which was briefly brought up at Thursday’s meeting -- may be an all-but dead subject, it does leave the problem that there is nobody who speaks for a community of almost 100,000 people, said Balcombe.
“When the Mayor of Gaithersburg calls County Executive Ike Leggett and says we need to do something about X intersection, the County Executive will say ok let’s talk about it. But if John Q. Citizen calls Ike Leggett, he’s probably not going to take the call. And in the past the Germantown Alliance was able to go to the County Council, and go to the State, and have our State Representatives come and attend the meetings. Now, if a councilmember wants to speak to the Germantown community there is no real way to do that,” said Balcombe, “and the Germantown Alliance can become that voice.”
“The community has grown tremendously in the past 15 years,” said Heffelfinger. “There needs to be an organization that can help connect everyone -- that can provide feedback to the County government and help them understand the priorities of the community. In addition Germantown needs a strong voice. As everyone says if it was incorporated, Germantown would be the second largest city in the State of Maryland. That’s impressive.”
According Burkinshaw, “The next step is try to figure out governance and what committees we need to start off. We will launch the group officially with more robust plans in the Fall, knowing that there is huge community support.”
“We want to update the website and try to maintain communication. If nothing else as a way to broadcast to the entire community. Right now everyone is in their own silo either in a PTA or an HOA, or you own your own business. There is no real broad based organization that is the umbrella to the entire community,” said Burkinshaw.
“We don’t want it to be too political,” said Burkinshaw. “However, the point of the Alliance is to advocate for the UpCounty area.
And Rice seems to agree with that sentiment. “As this organization will be a voice of the community I will play a very minimal role in my involvement with the organization even though I had a strong history with it,” said Rice. “I will however, look to them as a guidance for many of the things that we will focus on in the future for the Germantown community and the Upcounty as a whole.”
“It is not about individual groups, it is about what we need in the greater Germantown community, and how we get the resources we need from the County and how we get attention to the issues that are priorities for us. How do we prioritize what the Germantown issues are unless we have a forum in which to do so?”
“When my wife and I first moved to Germantown,” said Rice, “I joined the Germantown Alliance back before I was ever elected to office. As a part of that group, we were instrumental in bringing about the Shady Grove Adventist emergency center for the Germantown community.”
Organizers are planning to send out a survey to residents and businesses over the summer and reconvene the Germantown Alliance on a monthly basis beginning in September.