Wednesday, July 20, 2011

county official cites "competing demands" for veterans plaza

Veterans' Plaza At Night
County officials say the weekly Fenton Street Market prevents other groups from using Veterans Plaza.

We've been patiently waiting to hear Montgomery County's justification for dramatically raising the fee they charge Fenton Street Market to use Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring, potentially forcing it to shut down. A friend of JUTP wrote Ginny Gong, executive director of Community Use of Public Facilities, who rents out county-owned spaces to various organizations. According to Gong, not only must the Saturday-only, volunteer-run market make more than enough money to rent the plaza at $1,200/week, but that Fenton Street Market is pushing out lots of other groups who want to be there as well.

The letter follows (emphasis mine):

Dear [name redacted];

I am responding to your recent email regarding the Fenton Street Market (FSM) asking for special consideration for their business. The Civic Building’ plaza was reserved and permitted to the County’s Silver Spring Regional Center as part of a partnership agreement for which FSM is reimbursing the County a $48 administrative fee. No Facility Use permits were issued to FSM, nor were facility fees charged to FMS for their 10 hours of use every Saturday over a 32 week period. FSM “rents” this space to other commercial entities (usually 60+ vendors) each week at a minimal daily rate of $40 per space (larger spaces are $80). Based on our conservative estimates, the FSM is collecting $115,200 over the span of 10 months of use.

Much consideration and benchmarking went into establishment of the fees. The $125 per hour fee for use of the ½ Veterans Plaza (which we were willing to charge FSM for use of the full plaza in 2012) is significantly less than fees at comparable outdoor venues. Note a similar event in Prince William Community Plaza would cost $3200 per day while for-profit users like the FSM would not be permitted use of the Gaithersburg Concert Pavilion area.

I certainly agree that the market is popular, attracts residents to the downtown area benefiting surrounding businesses, and is a good thing for the continuing redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring. In fact, the value or worth of the FSM has never been an issue, but concerns about fairness have been raised because the arrangement was outside the normal competitive process, and other organizations (both non-profit and for-profit) have not had the same level of access. Other organizations have requested Saturday use of the plaza, but unfortunately CUPF was not able to schedule their use.

During the first year of operating this facility the County chose to experiment with different approaches. The Regional Center did so with the spirit of identifying “what worked” and “what did not” and was cognizant that “Year 2” of operations would be very different and require different approaches.

At the same time, the County has had to balance this approach with the Community Use of Public Facilities (CUPF)’s mission, which is to ensure fair and equitable access to public space for all groups as outlined according to policies and guidelines. CUPF was established as a non-tax supported agency in 1978 by County and State law with the formation of the Interagency Coordinating Board (ICB) as its governing body. The ICB establishes policies regarding priority of placement and variable fees consistent with Council Resolution 12-595, User Fee Policy, which addresses allocation of limited resources, benefit to the community, ability to pay, and includes a statement that the user fees should “cover the ‘privilege’ costs of having a facility available, and to cover the costs of reserving a facility. User fees should be charged which are proportional to the individual benefit. The starting point should be that 100 percent of the full cost should be reflected.” Additionally, while we appreciate the degree to which the FSM claims to be self sufficient, a number of incidents requiring intervention by CUPF staff, County Security, and Fire Rescue staff have been required.

Thus, the County wants to ensure that the FSM’s use of County facilities does not constitute a violation of equitable access or provide a subsidy in the form of free space to a private enterprise outside the competitive procurement process. To avoid compromising the ICB’s mission, CUPF is not able to provide a benefit to FSM that would not be available to all user groups.

While the placement of FSM is certainly a possibility for the most effective use of the space in 2012, competing demands have surfaced that require us to take a close look at how we can maximize the use of the Plaza within our established framework, policies and protocols. The County may wish to consider an RFP process to evaluate a variety of options for activating the plaza. I’m sure you join me in striving for fair and equitable allocation of public spaces and consistent treatment of all groups.


Ginny Gong, Director
Community Use of Public Facilities

It's disappointing how indifferent Ginny Gong seems to Fenton Street Market's significance to downtown Silver Spring. (Though, as a Gaithersburg resident - we looked it up - it's likely she's never been to Silver Spring outside of work.) I'm aware that CUPF is not the same agency that basically gave away the basement of the Civic Building for free to Round House Theatre, shutting out other local non-profit groups, but the county can't just turn around and say that letting Fenton Street Market pay discounted rent is wrong.

That said, is a market that uses half of Veterans Plaza for six hours each Saturday really keeping other groups out of the space? What about the other half of the plaza? What about the rest of the week when the plaza's empty? Hell, what about the rest of Saturday? If we want to draw people to downtown Silver Spring at all times, we should encourage organizations to use Veterans Plaza throughout the week.

Veterans Plaza is a busy urban space, serving both as an informal hangout, a stage for festivals and performances, and an everyday draw for nearby businesses. It is not the same as Gong's comparison, the Prince William Community Plaza, which is a park in the middle of a government office complex next to a highway, where nothing happens unless it's scheduled to. Fenton Street Market would fail in an isolated location like that. The market works in Veterans Plaza, and the plaza works for the market. The value of Veterans Plaza as a place, not just a revenue stream, and community that Fenton Street Market creates there, somehow goes unnoticed by a county that would fill the space with putt-putt golf to raise money.

To show your support for Fenton Street Market, sign this petition, or why not e-mail Ginny Gong at ginny.gong at and tell her what you thought of her response.

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