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Shopping Center Housing Local Amish Market to Be Razed

Fri June 22, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Katherine Shaver

BURTONSVILLE, Md. (AP) Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday for 20 years, thousands of shoppers have headed to Burtonsville in Montgomery County for a taste of Amish farm life.

They jam the aisles of the Dutch Country Farmers Market for fresh sausages and slabs of turkey bacon. They drive for miles — from the District of Columbia and Prince George’s, Howard and Baltimore counties — for home-baked blueberry pies, hand-rolled soft pretzels and freshly picked fruits and vegetables.

The 80 Amish and Mennonite workers commute four hours round-trip via van — with a non-Amish driver — from Lancaster County, Pa. But many have become so familiar that shoppers consider them part of the local landscape. The market’s black horse-and-buggy sign near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Maryland 198 is a landmark for Burtonsville, its tables a public gathering spot for a suburban crossroads community.

But come next summer, the market will be gone — at least from the Burtonsville Shopping Center. With the center slated for demolition, the market’s vendors are looking for a new home. Montgomery County economic development officials and some residents are working to ensure that they don’t move too far.

“We’re afraid if we ’allow’ them to move away, they could go anywhere — to Hagerstown or Pennsylvania,’’ said Shelley Rochester, a Burtonsville resident leading the charge. “The greater community doesn’t want to lose them. … This is the closest thing we have to a town square.’’

The shopping center’s developer said the tired, ugly, 1960s-era building that houses the market needs to be replaced with something nicer and more modern. Plans call for a shopping center three times as big and anchored by a major supermarket, said Chris Jones, president of Bethesda-based BMC Property Group.

The Amish market must go, Jones said, because supermarkets won’t sign a lease with competition next door. Securing financing for the new building also would be too difficult without tenants who, unlike the Amish vendors, have substantial credit histories, he said. The developer hopes to break ground on the new shopping center next year.

“The Amish market has great people, and they’ve had a good run there,’’ Jones said. “They’ll survive. We will help them find a new location.’’

But finding another large, properly zoned space nearby hasn’t been easy, he said. Retail space is in short supply locally, he said, and building a new site would take too long. The market, which draws large crowds, also needs more parking than would a store of comparable size.

Vendors say they want to stay in the centrally located Burtonsville area.

“We’re happy with it,’’ said Sam Beiler, owner of Beiler’s Fresh Meats. “We’d like to keep the customers we have.’’

Montgomery officials say they would like to keep the market in Burtonsville.

Cindie Harrison, of the county’s Department of Economic Development, said it’s been difficult to find the kind of “well-below-market’’ rental rates the Amish have been paying. Finding a shopping center that doesn’t mind a tenant drawing customers only three days a week also is challenging, she said.

The crowd the market draws is eclectic.

On a recent Thursday, three Montgomery firefighters waited at the rotisserie chicken and spareribs stand as a man in a business suit scoped out whoopie pies while chatting on a cell phone. An older couple savored their fried chicken, while a teenage girl dressed in black with heavy eyeliner and knee-high leather boots clomped out the door with a fresh pie.

Amish children — the boys in straw hats and black pants held up with suspenders, the girls in dark, plain dresses, aprons and white caps — clutched bags from the nearby CVS and played behind the baked-goods counter.

Dwight and Sondra Hyman said they’ve been driving from Hyattsville for 10 years for Beiler’s bacon.

“I know it’s coming from the farm,’’ said Sondra Hyman, as she waited at the counter. “I know what I’m getting.’’

Next to her, Mark Thrasher spoke up. “I love this place,’’ Thrasher told Hyman. “They’ve got to find a place to go. They can’t close up.’’

For many shoppers, the market — one of several in Maryland (including one in Germantown and another in Annapolis) — provides a connection with a private culture encountered most often from a distance as its horse-drawn buggies clop along Lancaster County roads. The Amish workers chat with customers but say they don’t get many questions, such as, if Amish culture limits their use of modern conveniences such as electricity, why do they use the market’s ovens, refrigerators and lights? Because, Beiler said, they’re using them in a leased building. The same goes for the market telephones.

“You can’t have gas lanterns hanging around and pass fire inspection,” Beiler said.

He and other vendors said they hope their new home will be bigger to better handle the crowds. If the fervor of their current customers holds, the crowds will come, regardless of where they end up.

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