No Easy Answers

Residents and Business Owners Push for Changes and Solutions Downtown

By Katherine Heerbrandt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 01.09.20 – Feature, Lifestyles

It was around 6:40 p.m. last Sept. 4 when attorney Tom Lynch drove down Court Street in Downtown Frederick, toward his home at Maxwell Place. At the intersection of Court and All Saints streets, Lynch saw an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing. Emergency responders were outside, treating a person on the ground in “obvious distress,”Lynch recalls.

He turned left onto All Saints Street and, as he crossed South Market Street, Lynch saw an ambulance and another emergency vehicle, both flashing lights, with responders attending to a person lying on the sidewalk.

Upon reaching his home, Lynch sought a moment of peace, settling in on his balcony overlooking Carroll Creek Linear Park. But that reprieve was short-lived, as he watched a man in the park’s amphitheater collapse to the ground at the feet of his female companion. The woman rifled through the man’s pockets, “apparently in search of something that might revive him,” Lynch says.

Patrons at The Wine Kitchen, located diagonally across the creek from the amphitheater, descended the stairs in front of the restaurant with “worried looks,” Lynch says. On the nearby bridge spanning Carroll Creek, Lynch heard a man on an electric bike and another woman ask each other if they had Narcan, a drug used to block the effects of opioids and prevent overdoses. Within minutes, another man raced across the bridge with something in his hand that he administered to the fallen man at the amphitheater. He woke and sat up. He later declined treatment by first responders and walked away.

While not an everyday occurrence, it was not the first time Lynch, his neighbors or park visitors witnessed emergency vehicles treating or transporting someone for medical treatment in their community. (Some don’t survive; last year, two bodies were found in the park, with no sign of foul play.) And it didn’t happen in the dark of night, in a back alley or in a neighborhood with a well-publicized resume for drugs and crime. It happened in daylight on an early evening in a public park considered a crowning achievement in the success story of Downtown Frederick.

Big City Problems

Therese Pelicano was excited to move into Maxwell Place from Montgomery County in 2007. It got her closer to her daughter and two grandchildren and she liked the Downtown vibe. But Downtown life changed in the past few years, she insists, when “the substance abuse got really bad,” culminating in a particularly unnerving experience on the night of the 2018 Kris Kringle Procession.

Upon leaving the condo that evening, her 11-year-old grandson came face to face with two men apparently overdosing on drugs on her All Saints Street front porch. Pelicano called 911, and police and an ambulance arrived. Later that night, one of the two men was back on the street, and her 8-year-old granddaughter was afraid to go home, asking, “Is that man still out there?” “I was livid,” Pelicano says.

As her daughter and grandchildren left to go home, they found another man passed out on the hood of their car. “I couldn’t believe this. It was the worst night,” she says. Worse, she felt like police were critical of her because of her repeated complaints.

Pelicano, whose ex-husband is a police officer, says she understands the challenges of addiction for law enforcement, but she shouldn’t be made to feel like “a terrible person because I didn’t want that outside my front door.” The experience forced her to call it quits and sell her home.

A half block away, Hootch & Banter opened its doors more than four years ago. The popular restaurant faces the Market Street entrance to Carroll Creek Park—a seemingly ideal location to attract local residents, businesspeople and tourists. “It’s a beautiful part of town,” says Hootch & Banter owner Sherif Salem. But the park entrance has also become a popular gathering place for others. “You get more tourism, you get more panhandlers, you get a lot more of everything going on,” Salem says.

Salem says he is often asked the question, “How can Frederick be so beautiful and so ugly at the same time?” His response is that all cities, generally, have similar problems. “Unfortunately, our problems are right in front of us,” Salem says.

And sometimes, those problems don’t end with the view. Last summer, a shirtless man came into the restaurant demanding water. Salem obliged. Later, the same man came in with a dog bowl taken from a nearby fire station, demanding the restaurant fill it up. Staff filled the bowl. When he came in a third time, Salem called the police. This time, “He stole our dog bowl. We filled it up because we were trying to diffuse the situation until the police got there,” he says.

Several police cars pulled up and officers downplayed the situation, saying they knew the man and that he was harmless and just drunk. “We said, ‘No, it’s more than that,’” Salem says. He suspects the man was on spice, a cheap synthetic cannabinoid that was outlawed in the city several years ago. It is still available in the county, however.

Police Activity

Right or wrong, city police have taken the largest measure of criticism about the escalation of aggressive and illegal behavior Downtown, with local government and the concentration of social services Downtown not far behind.

Police have a designated Downtown unit of six patrol officers, but the problems they face are complex. With homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse—coupled with mandated police programs and a court system that is reluctant to tie up the system or clog the jails with lesser crimes and mandated police programs—the answers to community concerns don’t come easy, says Frederick Police Chief Ed Hargis.

Hargis, who came to Frederick in July 2015, will be retiring this year. In more than four years in Frederick, he has witnessed an increase in drug use, a problem shared by cities nationwide, he says. From 2015 through nearly all of 2019, annual calls for Downtown service related to narcotics increased from 176 to 367; overdose calls increased from 40 to 72, while confirmed spice-related incidents have grown from 52 to 185.

Dealing with spice is tricky, as ingredients are constantly changing and officers must send the samples for testing to determine if it is considered a controlled dangerous substance, which then makes it a chargeable offense, Hargis says.

As for the demand for more foot patrols, a common refrain among Downtown residents and business owners, Hargis says he is hampered by the numbers. There are 149 sworn officers on the rolls; a handful are still in the academy and some others are on extended leave. Dedicating more officers Downtown means fewer officers in other parts of the city, he says.

Hargis, whose directive to officers in 2015 was, “Get out of your car,” has determined that police can cover more area from their cars. “It’s a big job and putting police on foot patrols isn’t as effective as people might think,” Hargis says. He also dismissed a call for emergency blue phones on the creek, an idea put forward by local politico and potential 2021 Frederick mayoral candidate Blaine Young. “Nobody uses those. Everyone has cell phones, and if you are seen going to a blue phone to call police, wouldn’t that put you in more danger?” Hargis says.

More cameras on the 1.2-mile linear park could help, but Hargis says he’s not sure the park has the capacity. Police rely on business owners and residents to put up and register their own surveillance cameras and will view the footage after an alleged crime occurs. Currently, police cameras are installed at the Market Street park entrance and on the suspension bridge. In an email, city Parks Director Bob Smith says more cameras are planned.

Cameras helped quell the illegal activity so prominent in Mullinix Park two years ago, Hargis says. In 2017, neighbors of the park, located near Carroll Creek, made similar complaints now being heard at Maxwell Place: drug overdoses and people using the area as a gathering spot for illegal activity. But many of those who used to hang out at Mullinix Park have simply moved to other parts of Downtown.

Quality of Life

Artisanal Hair Co., facing North Market Street has a picture window onto the comings and goings on the street, which doesn’t get nearly the foot traffic or visitors as its southern neighbors. “We’re like the red-headed stepchild of Downtown,” says manager Taylor Pronesti.

But if the area hasn’t shared in the uptick in visitor traffic enjoyed elsewhere, it has shared the downside: an escalation of unsavory behaviors in the past few years. “There’s a constant stream of issues,” Pronesti says. “People are nodding out, shouting vulgarities, asking for money, urinating in public and catcalling women on the street,” she says. She used to frequently call the police to report more-intrusive behaviors, but says she gave it up after seeing no improvement in the neighborhood.

As Pronesti was preparing the salon one morning last fall, a man banged on the front door. Pronesti was alone, so as a precaution she anchored her foot against the door before she cracked it open. The man began rambling about a haircut and would not be deterred when told the salon was not yet open.

“I was by myself. I was visible from the street. I thought initially that he might be a construction worker,” Pronesti says. The man became more insistent and started pushing on the door. Fortunately, another nearby man clearing the sidewalk with a leaf blower saw her predicament and came to Pronesti’s rescue.

A year or so ago on a sunny Saturday, Downtown resident and Artisanal Hair Co. owner Chris Riser took his family and visiting friends to Carroll Creek Linear Park. A big group of people were hanging out at the corner of Market Street and the park when a physical fight broke out between two women. The group yelled obscenities as tourists gawked.

In September, Riser says a shooting 30 feet from his front door on the corner of 4th and Market streets didn’t even make the front page of the newspaper. The shooter shot a man multiple times, but the man survived. Fortunately, the six shots were fired in the direction of a vacant building instead of toward residences and businesses, he says.

Riser also reported seeing people sleeping in doorways of the empty buildings or passing out on the front stoops of nearby businesses. He cites a lack of police presence as a factor, and an influx of “new faces” he sees on the Downtown streets. “No one wants to take responsibility. What about the rights of the people who live here and pay taxes? This affects our quality of life,” Riser says. “Right now, it’s not even as bad as it could be if nothing gets done,” he adds.

Downtown Safety & Services Initiative

Given the limitations of police, Chief Hargis and many other local officials are enthusiastic supporters of a privately funded program from the Ausherman Family Foundation called the Downtown Safety & Services Initiative. He and former Chief of Police Kim Dine serve on the program’s committees for safety and security. The group is tasked with coming up with ideas for improving the quality of life Downtown, and to potentially provide services in addition to those from the City of Frederick.

Co-leading the Ausherman effort, along with Peter Couchman, the foundation’s director of community benefits projects, is Gayon Sampson, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor’s executive assistant. The initiative has the full support of city officials, Sampson says, who hope to use it as a blueprint for similar future projects. “I was delighted, in my conversations with Mayor O’Connor, to have the depth of resources he’s made available,” Couchman says. “From the police department, including the chief himself, to city attorneys, the city’s contribution has far exceeded my expectations.”

City officials have met with Downtown Safety & Services Initiative members, residents and Downtown merchants for several months, hashing out the scope of the problems, the perception versus reality of the issues, and reviewing the city’s options and responses. Couchman says this is a long-term initiative with no firm timeframe.

O’Connor envisions his fledgling long-term strategic plan for the city as also offering some solutions to the increased need for human and police services. “I want the human service delivery model done in a comprehensive manner, and that means strengthening our connections to other government agencies and community organizations,” O’Connor says.

To combat some of the complaints about troublemakers at Carroll Creek Park, city officials passed the Safety in the Parks ordinance last March. The legislation gives police the option to ban someone from a city park or parks who has accumulated three infractions, such as littering, camping or vandalizing. The legislation went into effect April 2019, but as of December 2019, no one had been banned from Carroll Creek park under the new regulation.

To dissuade loitering and people sitting on stone entrance walls, the city added iron railings and flower boxes on the Market Street entry on the south side and wants to do the same on the north side. The city also shuts off electrical outlets unless needed for planned events to discourage people from loitering and charging their cell phones. Brush and shrubs have been trimmed to erase “blind spots” in the park, according to Smith, the parks director.

O’Connor has considered banning smoking in the urban park to discourage loiterers. The city now bans smoking in and around play areas in city parks, he says, and other cities have initiated parkwide smoking bans.

But one of the key limitations to restricting activity on Carroll Creek park, both O’Connor and Hargis say, is that the park is considered a thoroughfare and must be accessible 24 hours. The open park makes it a naturally inviting spot for overnight “camping.”

Community Action Agency

Carroll Creek Linear Park was initially part of a government-funded flood control project, following major damage from a 1976 storm, but the actual park straddling the creek sat mostly undeveloped until 2004. Former Mayor Jennifer Dougherty had campaigned on building out the park, and two years into her first term the city moved ahead. Development plans envisioned the mix of residential, commercial and retail seen today along the creek.

Less than a block away, the city-owned Frederick Community Action Agency at South Market and East All Saints streets was already in place, providing social and medical services to the county’s poor, unemployed, hungry and homeless. The agency was formed under former Mayor Ron Young and its location at the historic B&O railroad station was chosen in 1979.

No one asked to visually screen off the Community Action Agency when the urban park began taking shape, Dougherty says. Still, she suggested moving the organization to another city-owned building near Harry Grove Stadium but didn’t have enough votes on the Board of Aldermen.

Although the location of the agency and plans for the park were not at odds then, over the years the subject of their proximity has loomed large in debates about agency clients hanging around the creek. Former Community Action Agency Executive Director Mike Spurrier says its programs primarily assist the community’s poor with food, health, housing and energy assistance. People who are homeless represent a small percentage of the clients, he says.

Spurrier was terminated in October of last year after 31 years leading the agency and his highly publicized exit was anything but smooth. He rallied supporters to write city officials on his behalf and believes he was the scapegoat for the ills and complaints about behavior at the urban park and on All Saints’ Street. Mayor O’Connor denied Spurrier’s allegation but says he and the Board of Aldermen are legally prohibited from discussing personnel issues.

Spurrier’s firing came nearly 10 days after the Downtown Safety & Services Initiative held a public meeting, which drew about 130 people at New Spires Stages on Oct. 1. Near the end of the meeting, Spurrier responded to criticism from residents and emphasized the severity of drug crisis as a primary reason for the unwanted changes Downtown. Some in the room were surprised when Spurrier verbally sparred with a resident who was enumerating the violence and drug abuse she’d witnessed, and the meeting wrapped quickly.

The Board of Aldermen voted to fire Spurrier after he refused an offer from O’Connor to resign or retire. Alderman Ben MacShane negotiated a 28-day exit strategy for Spurrier, who was ushered out of his office on Nov. 14 by three city officials. Spurrier says he had asked to work into the evening to finish a transition report for the agency’s board of directors. His request was denied, and Spurrier supporters expressed outrage at the formal escort.

The 28-page report was completed, however, says state Del. Karen Lewis Young, who is also a member of the agency’s board of directors and who praised Spurrier for finishing it on his own time.

Next Steps for Human Services

The Community Action Agency, according to now-Sen. Ron Young, is a novelty. Only one other community action agency in the state is run by a municipality; most are run by county governments. Now, the agency’s board and its aligned nonprofit, Friends of Neighborhood Progress, are considering changes that would turn the Community Action Agency into a nonprofit, with an expectation of city support and heavier contributions from the county, Lewis Young says. But members are concerned that could hurt current staff, who are city employees.

Physically moving the agency is also on the table, Del. Lewis Young says. But if the city sells the building, it must move the agency to a low-income area in order to continue to be eligible for federal grant funding, Spurrier says.

Frederick County allocated $175,000 to the agency in the current budget year, says county spokeswoman Vivian Laxton. Last year, the agency received $125,000 from the county.

County Executive Jan Gardner says she spoke to Lewis Young about transitioning the agency into a nonprofit organization. “Financials are probably one of the biggest challenges to any effort to sustain a nonprofit model since the city funds about $1 million annually to the [agency], and the city also provides health benefits and other employee support,” Gardner says in an email. “Stability of experienced and knowledgeable employees and their buy-in to what comes next is very important to long-term success.”

Gardner says she looks forward to hearing from Mayor O’Connor about his vision for the future of the Community Action Agency. “Frederick is a caring community. I encourage everyone involved to be open-minded, creative and to work together to address these complex human needs for the betterment of the individuals involved and for our community,” she says.

Prior to his firing, Spurrier worked to move the agency’s soup kitchen, which serves dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., to the Frederick Rescue Mission on South Street. The Rescue Mission can hold up to 150 people, while the soup kitchen seats 56 maximum.

But, according to Arnold Farlow, the Rescue Mission’s executive director, those plans are on the backburner now that Spurrier is gone. The Mission recently started a day center, and Farlow wants to focus on that change before adding dinner service to the Mission’s kitchen, he says.

In the meantime, the city is conducting a search for Spurrier’s replacement. O’Connor says he wants to enhance the role of the agency and look at the total of human services the city should offer, and how best to deliver those services to those who need and want them, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Real Change Soon?

For Karlys Kline, battling City Hall has become nearly a part-time job. A resident at Maxwell Place and Tom Lynch’s wife, Kline has regularly taken photos depicting the less-savory aspects of life in the park and sent them to city officials. For nearly 10 years, she has watched the park grow more dangerous, she says.

She’s also had her share of run-ins with Spurrier and was not unhappy to see him go. Kline hopes new blood will be more cognizant of the needs of the whole community, not just those served by the agency. “I will be more than disappointed if nothing improves for the entire community in the near future,” Kline says.

The city will have support from the Downtown Safety & Services Initiative, whose members include the Rescue Mission’s Farlow and Nick Brown, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, which runs one homeless shelter near Downtown and wants to build another aimed at families. Betsy Day, executive director of The Community Foundation of Frederick County, chairs the initiative’s Services and Coordination Committee, which “is researching options for providing and increasing accessibility of services to those in need in the Downtown area,” Day says.

“While a robust county-wide human services system is in place, many of the services do not focus on Downtown, which makes this committee’s perspective different than other initiatives,” Day says.

In the midst of the public meetings and complaints and the uproar over the Spurrier firing, the Downtown Frederick Partnership presented its biannual report at a Nov. 20 meeting of the mayor and aldermen. “Downtown is the heart of business, commerce, government, civic life for Frederick. And a healthy heart helps promote the city overall,” Kara Norman, executive director of the organization, told city officials.

In an interview, Norman expanded on the successes of Downtown, including the fact that the number of residents in the area has bounced back to its high of 20 years ago. Downtown also boasts about 800 businesses, and the Partnership supports them through planned activities and promotions throughout the year.

Norman is leading a Downtown Safety & Services Initiative Ambassador Committee, charged with researching financing “ambassadors” who can perform a variety of duties, including guidance for visitors, landscape maintenance and providing extra eyes and ears on the streets. “They are not police officers, and cannot intervene in criminal activities, but will have radios to communicate,” Norman says.

Providing activities Downtown and on Carroll Creek Park is one way to keep problems to a minimum. The Downtown Frederick Partnership hosts concerts and events on the park and throughout Downtown. This summer, the organization hosted Tuesdays at the Trellis at the park, with free games and refreshments.

The burgeoning growth and financial prospects of Frederick’s Downtown has created a sense of urgency among investors and community leaders, who welcome the potential changes promised by the Downtown Safety & Services Initiative. The changes, perceived and real, in the feeling of safety and security Downtown have not yet bloomed into a deterrent for investors. “The concern that residents and commercial tenants, and others have that are using the space, is how this is going to be handled,” says commercial realtor Rocky Mackintosh, owner of MacRo Ltd. “It’s not an easy issue to deal with.”

He adds, “Some of the ideas will be challenging to accomplish because no matter what you do, you will be faced with some displacement issues that could be rendered unfair. At the same time, something’s got to be figured out.”