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Germantown Needs an Elected Political Voice

As we celebrate Independence Day this coming long weekend, let’s think about how important having a strong voice in government and political affairs can be, as the original declaration against “Taxation without Representation” celebrates 241 glorious years.

For 20 years or so Germantown has been growing. What started as dairy farms is now an urban center of roughly 90,000 residents. In a short time, Germantown has grown into one of the most diversely populated areas in the United States. Some might call it a city, but that would be wrong. It is not a city. It isn’t even a town, or a borough, or a village. What is Germantown?

That is a hell of a question.

Technically, Germantown is known as a Census-Designated Place. Doesn’t that sound homey and welcoming? “I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Census-Designated Place I grew up in,” said no one ever.

According to the most recent census data which is from 2010, the population of Germantown was 86,395. However, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2015 there were 31,359 households in Germantown, with an average of 2.86 members of each household. Some quick math puts the estimated 2015 population, based on households multiplied by household members, at 89,400 people.

That makes it the largest population center in Montgomery County. The population of Germantown is larger than the population of nine of Maryland’s 23 counties. Germantown needs a political voice. Germantown needs leadership. Germantown needs to get its act together. Germantown needs to incorporate.

Germantown needs to take some pride in its growth, and it needs to stand up and start throwing its weight around.

As most residents know, if Germantown incorporated it would be the third largest city in Maryland. But did you know that it would be largest city in the State of Delaware (Wilmington, Del. - pop. 70,851), and the State of Vermont (Burlington, Vt. - pop. 42,417), and the State of Maine (Portland, Maine - pop. 66,666), and the State of West Virginia (Charleston, W. Va. - pop. 50,404).

Here are some selected national cities which have a population similar to or smaller than Germantown; Boca Raton, Fla. – population 89,407; Racine, Wisc. - population 78,860; Kalamazoo, Mich. – population 74,262; Duluth, Minn. – population 86,110; Reading, Pa. – population 87,879; Youngstown, Ohio – population 66,982; and Bowling Green, Ky. – population 58,067.

Do you know what all of the cities mentioned in the previous two paragraphs have in common? A leader —a mayor, an alderman, or a first selectman, they have someone who speaks for the city. Someone who’s sole responsibility is the quality of life and economic improvement of the city. And only the city. Not the city and the towns surrounding it, or the County as a whole. Someone to speak for the city.

Germantown does not have one person who is responsible for looking out for the benefit, welfare, and future of Germantown. Germantown has no official person looking out for Germantown and only Germantown and its 89,000 residents.

Germantown’s only elected representative must also look out for Clarksburg, Damascus, Boyds, Montgomery Village, and the other various smaller “towns” in the UpCounty. Germantown doesn’t even have its own Chamber of Commerce, speaking just for the interests of Germantown. There is the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber. However, there is also a Mayor of Gaithersburg. Nobody speaks for Germantown in the Chamber.

Changes must happen. Something must be done. A leader must rise. Germantown must incorporate, or it will die. Yes, it will die. Businesses will move out. Home values will plummet. And it will become the scourge of the County.

And here’s why.

At a recent meeting of the Clarksburg Chamber of Commerce, Lily Qi, Montgomery County’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer for economic and workforce development responsible for the County’s overall economic strategies, business climate issues, economic communication and strategic partnerships, explained that the suburbs were a thing of the 20th Century, and the County no longer wanted to plan suburbs. She said the stated philosophy of the Montgomery County officials was to build urbanized areas that are; close to mass transit, mixed-use — have both retail and commercial aspects; and are walkable to both jobs and transportation.

Areas such as the new the Pike & Rose district of North Bethesda, or the Shady Grove Station – Westside Development near the Metro station in Derwood, or the newly planned White Oak redevelopment. Another example she gave was the Downtown Crown development in Gaithersburg.

Now there are some such developments in the works for the Germantown area, but they pale in comparison. There is the Century Boulevard development which will bring 160 townhouses, 28 2-over-2 dwelling units, five multi-family buildings with a combined 300 dwelling units, as well as over 300,000-square-feet of office space and an 85,000-square-foot hotel to the area formerly known as the Century Technology Campus.

In 2015, the County approved preliminary plans for three seven-story buildings with 485 new dwelling units and 28,250 square-feet of retail space to be built on Milestone Center Drive. Both of those developments are in strange areas. By design, both are stuck right up against I-270 so that residents and workers can have easy access to the highway.

You know, that highway that everyone sits in traffic in every morning and every evening. That highway that everyone complains about, the one that nobody is willing to fix. These developments will add to that traffic.

Most of Germantown residents rely on that darned highway. A very small percentage of the people who live in Germantown, work in Germantown. Our residents all work elsewhere. Many residents work for the federal government, while the Department of Energy has a big campus in Germantown, many more work at places such as NIST or the FDA, of one of the hundreds of various sundry federal agencies.

There is a movement among urban planners to attempt to eliminate people using automobiles. County Councilmember Marc Elrich suggested during a recent Council debate over M-83 that the County should be looking to limit parking spaces in job centers, such as Silver Spring or Bethesda, to force people to have to take mass transit or other methods of getting to work.

As many Germantown residents know, we need our automobiles. Walking to work, walking to the grocery store, or the shopping mall is simply not an option. Germantown is not designed to be a walkable urban area, and the traffic is not conducive to walking.

Montgomery County government as a whole is always very concerned with what might happen if the federal government suddenly tightened its belt to the point that County revenues would go down due to the loss of jobs. It is a real fear, and it is brought up at every Budget Forum held by Montgomery County officials.

If the federal government slashed workers or moved agencies out of the D.C. area, it is possible that a large percentage of Germantown residents would have to sell their homes and move.

Now, imagine that the County continues its plan to build urbanized areas where folks can walk to work or mass transit, or entertainment and shopping. More of these areas are built and become populated where the mass transit and job centers are located. Do you think there is going to be buyers for all of those recently vacated homes in Germantown? Or will young families rather live where they can walk to work, or school, or the transit? The prices of those homes in Germantown will drop.

Many Germantown residents have not been here for more than 15 years. There were not 90,000 people hiding behind the cows. Those folks came from somewhere else, almost of 20 percent (17 percent) of the population of Germantown are not United States Citizens. Both of these factors add to the celebrated multicultural makeup of Germantown, but they also mean, many in Germantown have not set down deep roots and can easily move elsewhere.

In the above example, we have a situation where home prices have fallen and many the 31,359 households in Germantown begin to sell in an effort to recoup some of their investment. Remember, a large portion of which have been living in Germantown for less than 15 years and nobody ever said, “I will always love my census-designated place.”

If people start leaving, businesses such as restaurants, dry cleaners, and beer and wine stores, will also start shutting down. And then the Germantown’s commercial areas will begin to look like the ghost towns.

Germantown may have to wait 20 or 30 years for the Metro to be extended (imagine that) or for the, as yet unfunded, Corridor Cities Transitway to be built before Montgomery County leaders will begin to see our census-designated place as a viable option for developers.

Anyone who believes that Germantown is not already urbanized has not been reading the Police Blotter and has never attempted to drive through town and not hit a more than three red lights. It is easier to navigate Manhattan traffic lights than the stop-and-go and stop again of the traffic signals in Germantown.

But, to whom can Germantown residents complain about the County’s development philosophy? Or the traffic lights? Or the crime? Who will speak for them? Who can make sure that Germantown’s concerns are more important to him — or her, than the concerns of residents from Montgomery Village, or Clarksburg, or anywhere else in the County? Nobody.

Nobody speaks for Germantown. Nobody looks out for Germantown. No elected official can say that they put the needs and desires of Germantown residents at the top of their "To Do List."

Please do not mistake the intentions of that last statement; the Germantown Pulse is not calling out Councilmember Craig Rice. He ably represents Germantown, but not only Germantown. Rice can’t say that Germantown is his only concern. Even a Germantown resident who might get elected as an At-Large member of the Council could not say that Germantown is his – or her – number one priority.

Isn’t it time that the 89,000 plus residents of Germantown had the same sort of rights to a representative government as the 16,715 folks in Takoma Park, or the 4,883 residents in Poolesville.

The Germantown Pulse urges local Germantown leaders — members of the UpCounty Citizens Advisory Board and the Germantown Alliance, and business leaders in the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, and leaders of other local civic organizations to come together and begin to seriously consider incorporation.

Even if the articles of incorporation merely outline the election of a part-time mayor, or a triumvirate of selectman, and a Germantown Economic Development Council. A person or persons who can be the figurehead of Germantown. A political voice for the 89,000 voiceless residents of this great Census Designated Place. Let’s begin the process of becoming something more, something better, a place we can all be proud to call home.

And Clarksburg, you may want to pay attention too.

We want to hear from the residents and leaders of Germantown about this topic, let’s hear some responses from other folks. What are your thoughts? Germantown Pulse has started the conversation, and it should continue.

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