2020 | Government

UPDATED: Elected officials urge Hogan to release $2M for businesses hurt by Purple Line construction

Legislature included money in budget; governor’s spokesman says spending ‘under review’

State Del. Jheanelle Wilkins speaks to reporters on Monday in Takoma Park.

Photo by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. Nov. 2, 2020, to add additional comments from Del. Jheanelle Wilkins and Mike Ricci and the names of others present at Monday’s press conference

Elected officials representing Montgomery County on Monday urged Gov. Larry Hogan to distribute $2 million meant to help businesses hurt by the construction of the light rail Purple Line.

State Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Silver Spring) sponsored a bill in this past year’s session in the General Assembly that would have aided small businesses that have suffered during the construction. The bill passed the House and Senate, but there wasn’t enough time in the session for the two chambers to concur on one bill, Wilkins told Bethesda Beat in March.

However, the legislature included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget $2 million to help businesses hurt by the Purple Line construction.

Wilkins said the $2 million has not been spent, even though businesses affected by the project need it.

“In addition to the already existing challenges businesses have been facing as a result of Purple Line construction, including road closures, traffic, and service cut-offs that have impacted businesses — mainly small and immigrant-owned — they now face the additional burden of COVID-19 closures and restrictions,” a statement from Wilkins’ office says.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci referred questions from Bethesda Beat to a statement he issued on Monday. In the statement, Ricci said that “this and other spending fenced off by legislators is under review while we determine the extent of our unprecedented fiscal challenges.”

“Making the situation even more complicated, the legislature did not provide a mechanism for actually distributing the funding,” he said.

Ricci wrote in another email that the state is “making good progress on the Purple Line and all of our critical infrastructure projects across the state.”

“We’re also working our tails off to help businesses through this unprecedented period, distributing another $250 million in relief. We can’t fund programs that don’t exist,” he wrote.

The 16-mile Purple Line would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.

Originally, completion was scheduled for 2022, but that date has been pushed back indefinitely due to a recent halt to construction resulting from a longstanding dispute between the state and the project’s manager, Purple Line Transit Partners. The state has started taking over some of the contracts.

Wilkins held a press conference Monday afternoon in Takoma Park in front of Evita’s, a bridal shop.

She said the shop was forced to close recently due to the “compounding effect” of the Purple Line construction and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the front window hung a purple-and-white sign that said “closed due to inaction by Gov. Hogan.”

“For several years, businesses along this route, elected officials and leaders have come to advocate for these funds, and we are standing here urging the governor to act on these funds,” Wilkins said.

County Council Member Evan Glass reiterated that pledge.

“Governor Hogan, do the right thing. Help these businesses. The money is there. They need your help now,” he said.

Other state and local elected officials also spoke at Monday’s press conference, as did members of the business community, who talked about the ways Silver Spring and Takoma Park have been suffering due to the effects of the construction, and now the pandemic. The businesspeople included:

  • Kayleigh Gunnound, the executive director of Takoma/Langley Crossroads Development Authority
  • Ganesh Ghimire, the owner of Red Chillies Indian Cuisine in Takoma Park
  • Lene Tsegaye, the co-owner of Kefa Café in Silver Spring

Wilkins’ office noted that Hogan last week announced that he was withdrawing $250 million from the state’s rainy day fund to help businesses, but it would not go toward those affected by the Purple Line construction.

County Executive Marc Elrich on Monday urged Hogan to also set aside money from the rainy day fund for the Purple Line businesses.

“The money is there, but it’s not going out, and it doesn’t do any good if it’s not going out,” he said.

Elrich urged people to vote “Yes” on state ballot question 1. Question 1 would amend the state constitution so the legislature could add or reapportion money in the governor’s proposed operating budget each year as long as it doesn’t increase the overall amount in the budget.

[For more information on the ballot questions, visit Bethesda Beat’s voters guide].

“It gives the legislature more power to make decisions,” Elrich said. “These people [in the legislature] represent us. They far outnumber the governor in terms of the range of people that they serve directly in these communities. No one understands these issues better than they do.”

Wilkins said in an interview with Bethesda Beat on Monday that the funds have been available since July 1.

“Four months have gone by. These businesses have been struggling and struggling for years, but even now more so with COVID-19, he has these funds available and he has not acted on them.”

Wilkins said she has contacted Hogan’s office about the funds at “several public briefings.”

“I’ve asked publicly about where this stands and they said they would get back to me, and it’s been silent,” she said.

When a reporter asked Wilkins during the press conference on Monday about Ricci’s statement, Wilkins replied that Hogan has already created multiple grant programs specifically to help businesses. She added that the bill she sponsored in this past year’s legislative session lays out how such a Purple Line business grant program would work.

“We have a blueprint for him in the legislation … so that is just an excuse coming from the governor’s office. These businesses cannot wait,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com