By Neal Earley
ROCKVILLE — For Chris Zhu, owner of Pandora Seafood and Bar in Rockville, the reality that her restaurant would close has not fully hit home.
Just one year after she opened her restaurant in Rockville Town Square, Zhu announced this week that she will have to close it for good.
When Zhu spoke publicly about what had happened at a community forum, it was hard for her to pull back her tears.
“I have no hope,” Zhu said.
Zhu who said she was misled by an agent and the landlord about the rent and fees, and she is being evicted after she stopped paying the rent for her restaurant.
On Tuesday night, business owners, residents and city officials gathered in a forum to discuss a major problem for the City of Rockville – disappearing local businesses in its town square. While Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she had expected only 60 people to show up, the room at VisArts was at overcapacity, with police keeping dozens of people outside to follow fire safety code regulations.
The meeting, which served as an airing of grievances for residents and business owners, was prompted by the news that Dawson’s Market, an anchor store for Rockville Town Square, would close its doors at the end of the month. But Dawson’s is just one of many local businesses that has closed or will be closing their doors soon, indicating a larger problem for the City.
At a town hall event Tuesday night, in a packed room over capacity, residents lined up to voice their frustrations with the city. They complained about parking fees, the lack of parking, the lack of public transportation, high rents from the landlord Federal Realty, the lack of entertainment options and boutique shops – all within a space that was supposed to serve as a commercial hub for Rockville.
For Joanna Akin, owner of Liquid Blue Boutique on Maryland Avenue, the problems go beyond the City of Rockville.
“My lease will end soon, and whether you support my particular type of business or not, I will tell you that I can no longer afford to do business in either Montgomery County or the State of Maryland,” Akin said.
For many of the residents, the loss of Dawson’s was the final straw. An eco-friendly local market that sold local produce, Dawson’s served as a key tenant for landlord Federal Realty in Rockville Town Square. Residents refusing to accept the loss of a local market discussed forming a co-op market and questioned what the City or the landlord could have done to try to save Dawson’s.
For many of the residents, anger was a major theme and emotion of the night.
Many told stories of how they chose to move to Rockville for its diversity and for its historic homes, and they said they waited patiently for years for the City’s vision of Rockville Town Square – a central hub for restaurants, boutique shops and a major grocery store located within walking distance away from the Metro’s Red Line.
Now that vision is dwindling, as some of the only businesses that may survive in Rockville Town Square are big chains such as Starbucks, Buffalo Wild Wings and Bar Louie.
Rockville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Marji Graf and Rockville’s Director of Community Planning and Development Services Ricky Barker have a challenge ahead of them, as both are new to the City, starting at their respective positions just months ago.
While Newton and many residents have said they want another grocery store to replace Dawson’s, the decision of what will replace the market will be up to Federal Realty.
Federal Realty has encouraged people who have suggestions about how to improve Rockville Town Square to visit https://courbanize.com/projects/rockville-town-square/information to leave a comment and to ask questions.