Family Dry Cleaners may be ousted from Silver Spring

Downtown Silver Spring may lose another locally owned and operated business. According to a November Silver Spring Singular blog post, the Peterson Companies are pressuring the Family Dry Cleaners to leave the prominent Wayne Avenue Shopping Center location they have occupied since 2000 when the center opened. The dry cleaner’s lease expires next March. The blogger wrote that Peterson — which manages Downtown Silver Spring under an agreement with Montgomery County — is courting CVS to occupy the space now held by the cleaners, along with adjacent spaces formerly occupied by Hollywood Video and MotoPhoto (later, an Upscale Pharmacy outlet).

Family Dry Cleaners, Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author, December 2010.

Family Dry Cleaners petition. Photo by the author.

Family Dry Cleaners is a family business owned and managed by Arlington, Virginia’s Im family. Sung Im is the company’s president and according to an email sent to customers, there are 13 employees in the firm. The email noted that the family opened its first store in Arlington 19 years ago. In November, customers were encouraged to sign a petition to “Keep Family Dry Cleaners Alive” and were asked to write letters endorsing the business. “Please, take a moment to write a letter of support to express the need for our service and your interest in helping us remain tenants across from Whole Foods Market,” Family Dry Cleaners wrote to customers who signed the petition.

Downtown Silver Spring property manager Jennifer Nettles declined to discuss details about the Family Dry Cleaners lease or negotiations with CVS. “We can’t talk about tenant leases and we can’t talk about any future tenants that might be coming in,” she said during an interview in her Silver Spring office. “CVS has been looking at this property for years. I mean it’s absolutely nothing new but there’s nothing I can discuss because there’s no deals in place.”

Reemberto Rodriguez, director of Montgomery County’s Silver Spring Regional Center, responded to questions about CVS by email. According to Rodriguez, no deal with CVS has been confirmed.

Nettles explained that CVS has been eying Downtown Silver Spring for a decade. “When it comes to CVS, they’ve been looking at our center since it opened,” she said.

A CVS would be a good fit for the Silver Spring market, according to Nettles and she cites informal surveys she has conducted. Downtown Silver Spring relies heavily on social media for marketing. In July, Nettles posted a query on Downtown Silver Spring’s Facebook page: “If you could have any store (retail or restaurant) at Downtown Silver Spring, what would it be?

“By and large, the percents for CVS were gigantic,” Nettles said. In addition to CVS, respondents wrote that they would like to see a Target and Trader Joes, in addition to specialty stores like Anthropologie. Only three of the 80 replies actually mentioned CVS.

Family Dry Cleaners location. Plan adapted from an image at the Downtown Silver Spring Website.

Much of the discussion generated by Silver Spring Singular’s initial post on the dry cleaners and CVS turned on current parking and traffic issues. Writers speculated that a CVS in the shopping center might exacerbate the existing problems. Nettles again declined to discuss specifics about the potential parking problems:

It’s in leasing’s hands right now. So what leasing does is they need to negotiate the lease and the parking. If it’s even feasible over there. You know, we’ve done a couple of renditions with CVS that just haven’t worked out.

Rodriguez did not want to speculate on the impacts to parking and traffic. “There is no confirmed agreement with CVS,” wrote Rodriguez. “It may be too early to be talking about this.”

Wayne Avenue Shopping Center parking attendant. Photo by the author, November 2010.

Parking and traffic congestion have plagued the Wayne Avenue center since it opened. Recently, the property owners have begun stationing uniformed security personnel in the parking lot. Drivers entering the lot are given slips of paper with the time of entry on them along with a reminder that there is a two-hour limit for parking in the lot, downtown Silver Spring’s only commercial free parking.

It is unclear what Family Dry Cleaner’s future in Silver Spring may be. One option, according to Nettles, would be to move the operation to another location in Downtown Silver Spring. “We move merchants around all the time,” Nettles said.

Historians who study family businesses (I am one) note that family owned and operated businesses are the cornerstone in modern industrial economic systems. Businesses like Family Dry Cleaners that capitalize on their entrepreneurial organization and who use the word “family” in their names or marketing recognize powerful draw family firms have in communities.

The topic of local businesses versus national chains recurs frequently in Silver Spring blog posts and in discussions about the future of Silver Spring’s revitalized downtown. While recruiting national chains like CVS would seem to make good economic sense, there are strong arguments towards encouraging local businesses like Family Dry Cleaners. And, Nettles admits that local businesses are essential to Silver Spring’s future: “We like a good mix. We’ve learned that some nationals, some local, some regional tends to work well here. A little bit of everything.”

Silver Spring Regional Center’s Rodriguez echoed Nettles’s comments. “Healthy mix and consumer choice is the name of the game,” he wrote. “All of this commercial activity makes for a vibrant, alive downtown area.”

Earlier this year, the Montgomery County Planning Department sponsored a series of talks it called “Rethink Montgomery.” One of the speakers was Michael Shuman, research and development director for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Shuman is the author of The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition and Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age and he spoke about the importance of locally owned and operated businesses like Family Dry Cleaners.

As Montgomery County’s leading private sector partner in the revitalization of Downtown Silver Spring, it appears that the Peterson Companies efforts to recruit CVS at the expense of Family Dry Cleaners is at odds with goals championed by the Planning Department in its Rethink Montgomery series. CVS may be a welcome addition to downtown Silver Spring, but what are the social costs of putting the drugstore in the Wayne Avenue Shopping Center space now occupied by Family Dry Cleaners?