Greg Bassett: Change is good, but sometimes not

Last week’s story on the Downtown parking garage generated some surprising reaction. In a community that hates change –- but which desperately needs change – people suddenly are feeling sentimental about the four-story concrete and brick parking lot structure in the heart of Salisbury.

I received several notes about the crepe myrtle and dogwood trees that were removed. Many people didn’t seem to understand the need for the colorful city marketing signs that were hung along the East Market Street side.

All of this is part of the Downtown revamping under way in preparation to host September’s National Folk Festival. City officials have earmarked about $200,000 for the exterior aesthetic work — the garage literally will be covered with a shrink wrap-type material that will give it a new and modern appearance.

Those concerned about the tree loss shouldn’t worry. When you think about it, the trees on South Division Street were misshapen and overgrown. Officials have promised a new landscaping and lighting plan that will keep the huge structure looking good for years to come.

The garage was built when I was a teenager, and like everything ever built in Salisbury it was the subject of controversy.

The project was expected to cost $1.6 million (that would be $7.1 million today) when engineer Andy Booth of Carroll Engineering presented its plans in 1976, and many people labeled it unnecessary, too expensive and a boondoggle in the making.

Downtown property owners and others were convinced no one would use the garage, which would force the city to raise either the Downtown Development Tax then assessed to businesses, or property taxes altogether.

In the spring 1976 city elections, the Republican slate for City Council made the garage the poster child of wasteful city spending.

Some high-powered folks – led by Victor Laws Jr., Robert P. Cannon Sr., Thomas F. Johnson Jr. and W. Edgar Porter – threatened to sue the city to prevent its construction. In a backroom deal, two of the protestors were given seats on something called the Central City District Commission.

Even when the bids for the garage came in an amazing $300,000 less than expected, cynical people speculated J. Roland Dashiell & Sons had been instructed to fudge the numbers to reduce the cost and assuage public concern.

When the garage opened in 1977, rates were 15 cents an hour – it’s a buck an hour today, with monthly users getting a discount.

The initial number of parking spaces was 529, but the city spent $2.4 million adding 230 spaces in 2001.

Now, 42 years later, one would have to regard the decision to proceed with the garage one of the best decisions ever made by local government.

“The parking garage is dated,” Mayor Jake Day said in our story last week. He even used the word “eyesore” to describe it. Count me among those who have always considered the garage beautiful and a symbol of urban progress. Still, align me with those willing to see what can be done to make it even more of an asset.

There was a small advertisement in our newspaper last week for the venerable B&J Market, located on Mount Hermon Road near Kilbirnie Estates and the airport.

The store that sells everything anyone would ever need, coincidentally, is roughly the same age as the Downtown parking garage, and its owners are celebrating their 40th year in business.

The ad was doing something that businesses too often forget to do — thanking their terrific customers.

Entering B&J Market is like entering a time machine. It is the classic country market that has such a familiar feel that I am immediately reduced to childhood upon entering.

One can get a key made, buy hunting and fishing gear, order an egg and scrapple sandwich from the food counter, load up on sandwich meats, beer, macaroni salad, those little white-powdered doughnuts – it’s a perfect place.

When I was a kid growing up in the country, people really only went to the big grocery stores on payday or the Wednesday coupon days, and then they would buy stuff to last either seven or 14 days. The local market – like the B&J Market – was where you went for quick items to fill in the food and household supplies gap.

For me, those stores included Birch’s Market in West Ocean City, Shockley’s Market in Sinepuxent and Daley’s General Store at Trappe Creek. When we moved to Salisbury, Hutch’s Market on North Division Street was a similar setup.

The Brown family has kept the market remarkably unchanged. If I’m taking “the back road” to either Ocean City or Berlin, I can’t help but stop in – even if I don’t need anything.

Founder Robert Brown, the “B” who is in his 80s and whom I’ve only ever heard called “Mr. Brown,” officially retired a few years ago, but I see him there all the time, usually behind the counter. His wife, Jeanette, the “J,” is still around; the couple’s son, Bobby, is now running things.

In a world where a new WaWa or Royal Farms seems to open every 10 minutes, I’ll be rooting for the B&J Markets of the community.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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