Category Archives: News

Laurel Cancels 150th Anniversary Plans

If you still live in the area, you’ve probably heard by now: all of the City of Laurel’s 150th Anniversary events that had been planned for the summer have been canceled, due to COVID-19 concerns. Sadly, and not surprisingly, this includes the Main Street Festival and 4th of July festivities. It also effectively ends the City’s “Passport to Rewards” program, which was only able to host three of the planned 36 events this year, before the pandemic arrived.

The Laurel History Boys were fortunate to be part of one of the Passport events that did take place back in February, but the remaining two programs that we had planned are postponed. At our “Laurel at 150” event at Partnership Hall, we presented Mayor Craig Moe with the very first copy of our new book—the aptly titled Laurel at 150. While our full supply of books was still en route, the printer had shipped a small number of advance copies, which folks were able to preview that night.

This certainly isn’t the way anyone could’ve envisioned 2020 playing out. Plans that the City had spent the better part of a year making—plans that would’ve seen a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary—had to be put on hold, with the hopes that perhaps we can just do them all next year instead, when it’s safe to gather once again.

I’m both happy and proud that we were still able to produce the Laurel at 150 book before the shutdown kicked in. The full supply was only slightly delayed when it arrived in early April, and Kevin and I have worked diligently to pack, ship, and hand-deliver all of the pre-orders as quickly as we could.

The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s an added honor knowing that it’s ended up being the only tangible takeaway for the 150th anniversary—a fact that certainly isn’t lost on me, after learning that a planning committee member had dismissed the book idea as “not worth the time or trouble” last year. We knew it would indeed be worth it, and that it will become a lasting piece of Laurel history in its own right.

While we haven’t yet had the opportunity to sell the books in person at events, they are still available at laurelat150.com for $40 each via PayPal. Shipping is free.

As someone recently commented, “Now THAT’S how you celebrate an anniversary. It’s a wonderful way to experience our hometown’s rich history, especially while we’e all stuck at home this year.”

Click here to order

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Laurel at 150 on PGCTV

Our thanks to Patti Vallone and Prince George’s Community Television for the interview and segment on the Laurel History Boys‘ new book, Laurel at 150. Being our first Zoom interview, this was kind of historic for us in its own right! 🙂

Ironically, this year has turned out to be a historic one in a way none of us could have ever foreseen. While we’re certainly glad we finished the book in time for Laurel’s 150th anniversary, it’s unfortunate that COVID-19 hit after it had already gone to print. News of the coronavirus and the City’s excellent response to it definitely would’ve made an important and timely final entry in the book.

Also, the pandemic effectively cancelled all of the City’s planned anniversary events—at least through the summer. This included the Main Street Festival, at which we were expecting to be able to sell books in person. Nonetheless, you can order them online at www.laurelat150.com. Books are $40 each and shipping is free.

Kevin and I have caught up on the mailings—we had several hundred pre-orders to package up and ship ourselves, and doing so in the midst of the shutdown was no easy task. But seeing the overwhelmingly positive response from those who’ve received their books has been fantastic, and it just reinforces what we knew from the outset—that this was an important, worthwhile project and a lasting keepsake for Laurel’s 150th anniversary.

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New Challenge for Tastee Diner

I think it’s safe to say that nobody could’ve anticipated the unprecedented situation we’re faced with at the moment, with restaurants and other “non-essential” businesses being forced to close for who knows how long. At the moment, there’s no reprieve in sight, unfortunately, and that doesn’t bode well for small businesses—or their employees.

One of our favorite places, the Tastee Diner, is one of many locally-owned small businesses being affected by the pandemic shut down. You can probably count on one hand the number of times the Diner has been closed over the past few decades; but this is something entirely different.

All three Tastee Diners (Laurel, Bethesda, and Silver Spring) have had to close their doors—hopefully just temporarily. Staff members, out of work through no fault of their own, can use our help now more than ever. The owners and managers have started fundraisers and will split the collection amongst the staff. A link to the Laurel location’s GoFundMe page is below. Any amount you’d be willing to pitch in would be most appreciated.

It’s obviously a difficult and uncertain time for everyone; but please consider donating a little something to help these folks who’ve taken such great care of us over the years. Even if it’s just the cost of what you might typically pay for one of those tasty breakfasts that we hope to be enjoying again very soon. Thanks so much.

~ Rich

https://www.gofundme.com/f/laurel-tastee-diner
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A Final Salute to Shane’s

(Photo: Richard Friend)

When I was a kid in 1979, the year 2020 seemed like an eternity away. I expected there’d be flying cars and routine space travel… Although I didn’t give much thought to who or what might no longer be around. But I’m sure if you asked adults at the time which local businesses would still be in existence over 40 years into the future, Shane’s Sandwich Shop probably wouldn’t have been high on the list. But then again, Shane’s always seemed to fly under the radar.

Improbably, it has lasted. It actually outlived the bowling alley with whom it shares a parking lot.

But, unfortunately, not by much.

We’ve learned that Shane’s is finally closing. Their last day is January 30th.

Word began to spread from saddened regular customers on social media, and even the City of Laurel’s Facebook page posted a tribute:

Like many, I wondered what had happened. Had the owner decided to step back and enjoy a well-earned retirement? Had business slowed after the bowling alley suddenly closed last year?

I received a message from the owner’s niece, Jacqueline, sharing a bit of insight into the situation. As it turns out, Shane’s actually wasn’t planning to close anytime soon. Sadly, that decision was made for them by the landowner, whose attorney notified them that the building had been sold. And, per the terms of their lease, they had 30 days to vacate the premises.

This was a forced closure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I want to take a moment to look back at this unique little restaurant and appreciate just how it came to be such a staple in our town.

1979

1979 was a pretty good year for Laurel.

The grand opening of Laurel Centre Mall that October was the obvious highlight, with locals waiting anxiously for ten months before getting to explore the new, state-of-the-art shopping facility. The adjacent Laurel Shopping Center received a major facelift that year, too, in complement to the new mall. The Route 1 skyline even changed dramatically, with the rise of the 10-story Arbitron Building.

But earlier in the year, a much smaller business set up shop just a stone’s throw east of the mall, in the parking lot of the Fair Lanes bowling alley on Marshall Avenue. That’s when Shane’s opened with little fanfare—just a series of 25¢ off coupons that April in the Laurel Leader.

(Laurel History Boys collection)

Actually, Shane’s wasn’t totally new. It had previously been Harley’s Sandwich Shop, which had opened in the little building way back in 1966.

Harley’s Sandwich Shops were a big deal in the Baltimore region. Founded by Harley Brinsfield in the 1940s, his sandwich shops became one of the first local fast food chains. Ready to retire by the end of the 1970s, he sold the business to Shane’s—a new franchise eager to take over the Harley’s locations.

(Photo: Richard Friend)
The Harley’s sign is visible in this 1974 photo, just beyond the burning pickup truck. (Photo: John Floyd)

Shane’s was essentially just a rebrand of Harley’s Sandwich Shop. In fact, as noted in the coupon ad above, nothing had changed but the name. The menu remained intact.

Jacqueline’s grandfather, Chang Ik Ham, bought the Laurel franchise location in 1985. Running the little restaurant was truly a family affair and a labor of love, as nieces, nephews, and others routinely pitched in throughout the years.

(Chang Ik Ham family photos)

Mr. Ham worked at the restaurant every day until he was suddenly diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, and passed away just four months later. He was only 69 years old.

His nephew, Sang Chun, took over the business and has worked there tirelessly ever since. Mr. Chun is the gentleman you’ve most likely seen manning the store over the past two decades. He has an uncanny ability to recognize customers and remember their sandwich orders, no matter how long it’s been since their last visit. In fact, if you phone in your order, he typically recognizes your voice and immediately knows which sandwich you’re about to request—that’s not an exaggeration!

Sang Chun, January 25, 2020 (Photo: Richard Friend)

Shane’s (and Harley’s, previously) was practically an extension of the bowling alley. When AMF abruptly closed the bowling alley last August, it came as a shock to all. It had opened back in 1961, and really never lacked for business in its final years, ironically. The bowling alley was, however, hopelessly mismanaged and understaffed, but I digress. Shane’s was as natural a parking lot partner for a bowling alley as you could dream up. More often than not, bowlers would take a break and walk the few steps to Shane’s rather than wait for a second-rate sandwich at the Bowling Alley’s restaurant counter; and then sneak the subs back inside.

In the heyday of “cruising,” Laurel’s teenagers and twenty-somethings inevitably ended up in the Shane’s parking lot at some point over the course of the night. Seeing the parking lot (and the restaurant itself) packed to capacity Saturday night was like a time warp.

Saturday, January 25, 2020. (Photo: Richard Friend)

It was also a clear outpouring of love by locals—and former locals like myself, who’d driven from some distance—to experience Shane’s one last time.

As disappointed as I am that Shane’s is closing, I’m more disappointed for Jacqueline’s family. I constantly hear (usually from elected officials or those in the position of profiting in some way) that “everything has to change at some point.” Believe me, I understand and accept that fact. But it’s the way something like this is changing that angers me. There’s a right way and a wrong way to affect change; and forcing out a small business that’s been here for over 40 years by suddenly giving them 30 days’ notice—that’s the wrong way.

Mr. Chun wasn’t—and isn’t—planning to retire. He’s now forced to find employment, which is always easier said than done, especially after so many years of working for oneself.

“We are beyond saddened about the forced closure. We feel as if we are leaving a part of our family behind with the closure of Shane’s. We all got teary eyed reading comments people left on Facebook of their memories of Shane’s.”

Jacqueline (niece of Sang Chun, owner of Shane’s Sandwich Shop)

Shane’s was one of just a startlingly few long-time local businesses left in Laurel. Think about it for a minute: how many niche places—locally-owned businesses that are unique to Laurel—are still here that existed 40 or more years ago? Bart’s Barber Shop, Dottie’s Trophies, Nuzback’s, The Tastee Diner, Toucan Taco … You can literally count them on one hand.

According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, the property (both Shane’s and the former bowling alley) are owned by iStar Bowling Centers II LP. Jacqueline’s family has heard that the bowling alley will become a Latino grocery store, so perhaps the Megamart (currently sharing the old Dart Drug space on nearby Bowie Road) is relocating into that larger building. But there was no word on what will become of Shane’s after it closes.

Shane’s was one of those rare, beloved businesses that, after so many years of surviving, we assumed it would simply always be around. That’s going to end this week, unfortunately. Please stop by before they close for good on Thursday, January 30th, and savor those subs one last time. More importantly, wish Mr. Chun and his family the best of luck, and thank them for 40-plus years of unrivaled sandwich service.

(Photo: Richard Friend)
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Tubby’s Diner

Folks from West Laurel especially will remember Tubby’s Diner, which has operated at 5701 Sandy Spring Road (Route 198 just west of Bond Mill Road) for the past quarter century or so. Prior to that, it was The Hitching Post, which dated to at least the mid-1950s.

The building has been modified significantly over the years, but hidden within the stucco façade is actually a log cabin structure that’s been standing since the 1800s.

The Hitching Post in 1955 (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection, courtesy of Martina Darnall-Jones)
The Hitching Post in 1990

Unlike another local diner that dominated Laurel discussions last year, this building isn’t necessarily in any imminent danger. However, it was learned on New Year’s Eve that the diner portion of the business will be closing, as the current owner has apparently decided to expand their liquor store business to occupy the full location.

Unfortunately, it seems that news of the restaurant’s pending closure came as a complete surprise to its longtime staff—and that’s certainly no way to start the new year.

Victoria Collins, one of the many regular customers of Tubby’s, has started a GoFundMe campaign aimed at helping the staff during this difficult time. Please consider donating what you can. All proceeds go to the employees.

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Laurel at 150: Pre-order now!

I’m extremely excited to report that The Laurel History Boys‘ most ambitious, most important project to date is officially open for business. On Kickstarter, that is.

Laurel at 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate Our Future is a decade-by-decade visual journey through Laurel’s past—a collection of historical highlights covering the pre-1870s through the 2010s. 

Written by Kevin Leonard, author of the popular “History Matters” column in the Laurel Leader, and designed by yours truly, this 200-plus page hardcover book promises to be a uniquely important addition to to the library of anyone interested in the history of this community.

Fifty years ago, the City of Laurel hastily produced a “Centennial Souvenir Booklet” to commemorate the 1970 event. I can vividly recall spending countless hours perusing that booklet during my time working at the Laurel Library. And all these years later, that booklet—for all its faults—remains the primary source of general historical information on our hometown. We’re honored to be creating what we believe will finally eclipse that publication as a thoroughly readable, enjoyable time capsule that will set the stage for the next fifty years and beyond.

This brief teaser video gives you an idea of what the book will be like:

In addition to the history section, you’ll notice that we’ve included an extensive, current directory of local civic organizations. Laurel has a long tradition of volunteerism, and this is a terrific way to acknowledge and promote the fantastic work these groups are doing to serve the greater Laurel community.

The Kickstarter campaign is critical for raising the funds needed to publish this important book. The beauty of crowdfunding is that in the process of reserving your copies of the book, you’re literally helping to get it printed. Without your help—and without meeting our minimum goal—it can’t be funded.

But the campaign is off to a tremendous start. With another 15 days to go, it’s already surpassed the 54% mark.

Everyone who pre-orders their books through Kickstarter will receive a printed credit in the acknowledgments. Plus, there are a number of different reward levels you can choose from.

You can also get a Postmark Laurel book for half price, and save when you pre-order multiple copies of  Laurel at 150. If you’re planning to give books as gifts this holiday season, this is the perfect time to do so!

Here’s something else that makes this extra special. Because The Laurel History Boys are now officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, (EIN: 84-2682931) donations are tax deductible. There are a number of reward levels that will allow you to take advantage of this bonus, whether you simply want to donate to help fund the book, or if you wish to advertise your business or organization with an elegant ad in the book itself. 

Please take a look at the Kickstarter campaign or all the details, and help us by reserving your copies now. The campaign ends on Friday, December 6th at 3PM, and it’s all or nothing—if we aren’t able to meet our minimum goal, we don’t receive any funding. But I’m confident that this project will exceed that goal, enabling us to increase the page count and make it even bigger and better!

Please don’t forget to share the link, too. If you have friends or family with even the slightest interest in Laurel history, they’re going to love it.

Likewise, if you own or know someone who owns a business or organization, please consider one of the tax-deductible sponsorship ads. It’s a unique opportunity to do something good by helping to get this book published; and you’ll get the long-term benefit of having your ad in this special book that will become part of Laurel’s history itself.

Click here to visit the Kickstarter campaign and help get Laurel at 150 published by reserving your copy today!

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Bon Voyage, Bowling Alley

Over 58 years ago, Fair Lanes began construction on a massive new bowling facility on Marshall Avenue in Laurel. And when it opened on February 4, 1961, it was front page news:

That’s why it was with some shock and sadness that its abrupt closure earlier this week came with no fanfare whatsoever.

Somehow, in spite of the rise of video game popularity and other entertainment alternatives through the years, Laurel’s bowling alley not only remained open—it thrived. In fact, even when Fair Lanes itself went bust in 1995, AMF took over and kept it going.

I’ve written about what the bowling alley has meant to me before, (see here and here) so I won’t rehash too much. Suffice it to say, it was always a very special and familiar place, no matter how much it changed… or how much I changed. It even enjoyed an improbable rebirth in 2014, when duckpins returned to the bowling alley after 25 years.

Learning of its closure feels like losing an old friend. And with Laurel’s classic businesses now practically an endangered species, losing the bowling alley is losing a generational icon.

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Postmark Laurel: Kickstarter campaign now live!

Nearly five years ago, I launched a Kickstarter campaign that resulted in the successful publishing of my very first book—Lost Laurel. It was a tremendous experience; and the crowdfunding aspect allowed me to create a better product and make it available to a broader audience. In addition to selling the entire supply, I was able donate copies to Laurel High School and the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (where I worked throughout high school and college, shelving books!)

Although I hadn’t pushed a book cart in 20 years, I took a moment at the grand opening of the new Stanley Memorial Library to ceremoniously re-shelve my Lost Laurel books!


In the years since, many folks have asked me, “When will you create another book?” I’m happy to report that I’m doing exactly that. In fact, while there are three other books that I’m currently working on with the Laurel History Boys, I’ve officially launched the Kickstarter campaign for this one—Postmark Laurel: Historic Picture Postcards of Laurel, Maryland.

The book is a surprisingly diverse collection of over 120 different postcards from Laurel, dating from the early 1900s to the late 1980s, faithfully reproduced at full size—front and back.

In fact, the correspondence on some of the cards is often as charming as the cards themselves. Check out this one, and remember that it was mailed from laurel 110 years ago:

The Kickstarter campaign will help fund the printing and distribution of a first run of books, and it’s also a chance for you to have a part in its creation. As an early backer of the project, your name will appear printed in the book’s acknowledgments. There are also different pledge levels, in which you can not only purchase the book, but some of the original historic postcards themselves!

The campaign runs for 30 days, and is an all-or-nothing endeavor. So please make your pledges now, and share the link with friends and family to ensure that the minimum goal is met. If the goal is exceeded, I can upgrade the book—including making a hardcover edition.

If funded, all books should be printed and delivered by this July—plenty of time for Christmas gifts!

Click here or the image below to visit the official Kickstarter page and reserve your copies now!

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“The People Have Spoken.”

Only minutes into the long-awaited Board of Appeals hearing last night at the Laurel Municipal Center, there was a major surprise when an attorney for Pure Hana Synergy—the applicant attempting to purchase the Tastee Diner—addressed the committee in the opening moments.

Photo: John Mewshaw

“The people have spoken, and we have heard. For that reason and out of respect for the community’s wishes, we have decided to withdraw the special exception application.”

Richard K. Reed, attorney for Pure Hana Synergy

And just like that, the meeting was adjourned. I’m very happy to report that the legendary Tastee Diner will not be turning into a medical marijuana dispensary, thanks largely in part to those who signed the petition and supported the efforts to save this rare and special building.

While our community activism certainly played a big role in this result, those of us rallying to “save the diner” actually shouldn’t get all the credit (or the blame, depending which side of the fence you were on) for the Pure Hana deal falling through. It ultimately came down to the City of Laurel’s own Municipal Code, which includes strict criteria for medical marijuana dispensaries—more than one of which should have disqualified Pure Hana from ever applying for the Tastee Diner location in the first place.

First, there was the issue of the “one mile rule” in relation to any other medical marijuana dispensary.

This rule was initially the focus of some creative interpretation, as the Diner site is well within one mile of Revolution ReLEAF, the dispensary just north on Route 1 at the former Sam & Elsie’s bar. Pure Hana proponents likely would have argued that because Revolution ReLEAF is located outside of the 21st District in Howard County, the one-mile rule doesn’t apply—even though the COMAR code clearly says that “the premises may not be located within one-mile of any other licensed premises.” It doesn’t specify District limits.

Compounding the problem for Pure Hana was the recent approval of another dispensary just barely* (*depending on how one measures it) one mile south at the Tower Plaza shopping center on Route 1 at Cherry Lane. Department of Economic and Community Development staffers claimed that “It’s very close, but they just meet (the one-mile requirement).”

But again, the code seems open to interpretation. How exactly is the distance measured—is it door to door, or is it from property edge to property edge? The distance between the Diner’s location and that of this new dispensary set to open soon at Tower Plaza could also easily have been challenged.

When the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of Pure Hana’s application on December 11th, the simple proximity to these existing dispensaries was the real reason. To loud applause that night, chairman Rick Wilson had explained, “I strongly believe that we have adequate coverage of medical marijuana.”

But it’s actually another rule in the Municipal Code that likely would have nullified this deal for good.

Because he didn’t have the opportunity to speak at last night’s hearing after all, I asked City Council member Carl DeWalt if I could publish the text of what he’d planned to say. With his permission, here it is:

Good evening. My name is Carl DeWalt. I retired from 22 years with the Laurel Police Department and proudly represent the Ward 1 Citizens of Laurel on the City Council.
 
I am here tonight to urge the Board of Appeals to uphold the decision of the Laurel Planning Commission to not recommend approval of the application of Pure Hana, also known as SH Realty Holdings LLC, to operate a medical cannabis dispensary.
 
While I believe that the Tastee Diner has important historical value and should be preserved, that is not the reason I am here tonight.
 
Two reasons lead to the conclusion that not only was the Planning Commission correct in its recommendation, but the Pure Hana application should not have proceeded to this point at all.
 
First.  We have enough marijuana dispensaries.

As the Planning Commission noted, Laurel already has an approved Medical Marijuana Dispensary set to open very shortly.

• Distance is very close to the 1-mile mark, and if one uses the traditional legal definition of premises, the case can be made that the Blue Pharma company dispensary is less than a mile –4905 feet property line to property line.

• There is a dispensary in Howard County—Revolution ReLEAF.  The Laurel Code states: “The premises may be not located within one-mile of any other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis.”

This dispensary is less than a mile —.07 miles—from the proposed dispensary, and while some may say the fact that it is in another jurisdiction means any restrictions don’t apply, I would disagree. A mile is a mile, and the law does NOT state “within a mile…within the Laurel City limits.”

• Do we really need 3 dispensaries in a 1.8-mile radius?

• There is another dispensary operating on Rt 198, in Burtonsville.

• How many medical dispensaries do we need?

• How many do we need in the Laurel City limits?

• When the City passed its amendment to the unified code, was their intention to make Laurel a marijuana mecca?  I don’t think so. I hope not. And I hope you don’t think so either.
 
My second, and more important point addresses the fact that this application should never have been allowed to proceed this far.

• WHY. The Tastee Diner location disqualifies it from being a medical marijuana dispensary.

The Laurel amendments to the special exceptions in the unified code state:
Premises shall not be located within 1000 feet of a lot line of a public or private school, or real property owned by the Prince George’s county Board of Education or house of worship.
 
I draw your attention to the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church, 12 2nd St, Laurel, MD 20707.

1. Image of sign and Church entrance. This well-established faith community is less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner. As the crow files, its 668 feet door to door. Less if you consider it lot line to lot line—which is the proper measurement.

Walking along established roads it is 747 feet. 

2. How do I know these figures? Google Maps Distance feature, P.G. County’s own tool, P.G. Atlas, a laser Bushnell range finder and a surveyor measuring wheel. Under any measurement, the distance between Tastee Diner and the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church is less than 1000 feet.

3. According to the City’s own ordinance, which says a dispensary must be 1,000 feet from a house of worship, this application does not qualify for approval.
 
On the basis of both these factors I ask you to uphold the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Thank you.

Carl DeWalt

I suspect that no one—from either the Pure Hana camp or within the City of Laurel’s Department of Economic and Community Development—ever noticed that there is, in fact, a church less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner.

Perhaps because it isn’t in what we’d consider a traditional church structure, it was simply overlooked. But there it is—in the small strip mall at the opposite end of Dottie’s Trophies.

Photos: Carl DeWalt

Between the sheer number of other dispensaries in the area, the questionable distance between dispensaries both north and south of the Diner, and now the realization that there’s an established church less than 700 feet away, it’s now clear that this location was just never meant to be a medical marijuana dispensary.

While I think we’d all love to know how the Board of Appeals would have voted, it’s probably best for the City of Laurel that they didn’t have to. Because had they somehow decided to overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation—especially in light of these facts—the optics would have been quite bad.

For the record, I don’t suspect that they would have done that. But I both admire and respect Pure Hana’s decision to withdraw their application.

While the immediate threat has been eliminated, the Diner’s future is still very much in jeopardy, however. Owner Gene Wilkes was understandably disappointed in the deal falling through, and remains eager—perhaps more so than ever—to sell the property. After last night’s meeting adjourned, he hinted at considering simply “closing it down and boarding it up.” Given the resurgence of business since news of the potential sale first broke, let’s hope that Mr. Wilkes doesn’t make any such rash decisions. But that’s something that we, as supporters of the Diner, need to help with—please continue to frequent the Diner and encourage others to do so as well.

Saturday’s “Diner Appreciation Day” saw a fantastic outpouring of support—support that can be sustained. People who may have taken the Diner for granted over the years are thankfully rediscovering its appeal, and they’re spreading the word; and those who are experiencing it for the very first time are quickly hooked on its authenticity, and its affordability

It’s entirely fitting that on the very day that the dispensary drama would be resolved, the latest issue of the Laurel Leader came out with this as the cover story.

Now is the time for the City of Laurel to work with Mr. Wilkes on a way to purchase the Diner for the City’s Historic District. Mayor Craig Moe has already gone on the record, asking that Laurel be given the right of first refusal for any future sale—well, that availability is here. And with the help of state and county preservation grants, crowdfunding, and willing investors, it can be done—and the long term benefits would be immeasurable.

In the meantime, please continue to to support the Tastee Diner and its hardworking staff. Packing that parking lot on a regular basis is the surest way to keep the City’s attention… and more importantly, to keep the Diner open. 

For more on this story:

Washington Post coverage

Laurel Leader coverage

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Tastee Diner: Planning Commission DENIES Dispensary

I brought a good luck charm with me to City Hall. (Photo: Mike Oakes)

On Tuesday night, a rare capacity crowd filled the Laurel Municipal Center to help determine the fate of the Tastee Diner—the sale of which is pending to Pure Hana Synergy, the medical marijuana dispensary which plans to modify the historic building to fit its usage. After an emotional session that ran over an hour and a half, the City’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the recommendation to the Board of Appeals.

The full hearing is below, courtesy of Laurel TV, with the Diner agenda item beginning at the 27:35 mark:

Pure Hana’s owner, Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, spoke at length about her intention to bring the alternative medicine to Laurel, citing its benefits—particularly to veterans suffering from PTSD and other disabilities.

Members of the Planning Commission had a few initial questions for Christian Pulley and Robert Love of the City’s Department of Economic and Community Development, who’d frankly treated this hearing as a formality. When asked for an update on the City’s most recently approved dispensary—Mr. Love reported that the facility plans to open in approximately 30 days in the shopping center at Route 1 and Cherry Lane.

They were also asked about the fact that only two licensed dispensaries are allowed per district. Laurel is part of the 21st District, which as you can see, is quite large:

The district extends across both Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, from College Park to Odenton—and only two dispensaries are allowed to serve it. Laurel already has one of them—the aforementioned dispensary slated to open next month at Route 1 and Cherry Lane. If Pure Hana is awarded the second location, both would be in the city of Laurel limits—barely over a mile apart (and take special note of that—we’re going to come back to this point shortly).

The concern from the Commission was valid—isn’t that going to cause yet another traffic problem, with everyone in the 21st District having to come to Laurel?

The issue of the two dispensaries barely being over a mile apart is critical, as Mr. Rick Wilson pointed out that the distance between 118 Washington Blvd. and the new dispensary at Cherry Lane is not the 1.1 miles that the City claims. “It’s more like 5,281 and a quarter feet,” the commissioner said. Mr. Love acknowledged that “It’s very close, but they just meet it.”

The anxiously-awaited public hearing was opened, and a number of speakers approached the podium, including Jhanna Levin of the Laurel Historical Society—who lamented the negotiation between Pure Hana and Mayor Craig Moe last Friday, which would still result in the destruction of the diner.

I made the trip to Laurel to speak as well, hoping to remind the Commission of the importance of preserving the diner as it currently is—fully intact—and taking advantage of this incredible opportunity to work with all involved to move it to Main Street, rather than have it be sacrificed in the construction of a new dispensary. You can see my presentation at the 58:47 mark of the video above, but it’s transcribed below:

I started the petition that now has over 2,300 signatures urging the city to find a way to relocate the historic—and it is historic—Tastee Diner to Main Street.


There’s a line in the 1982 Barry Levinson film, Diner, that says simply, “We always have the diner.” For nearly 90 years, that’s a sentiment that’s been true in Laurel. Not only have we always had the diner, it’s been open around the clock—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only time it’s closed, is Christmas Day. So it’s sadly ironic that as we near the holidays, this might be the end of the road. Worse, the City’s rushing to push this sale through.


Pure Hana isn’t just taking over any old building. It’s taking over a legacy. Because we have always had the diner.


If you grew up in Laurel, you know it’s part of the city’s fabric. Your parents ate at this diner before you were born… Your grandparents ate at this diner. If you were fortunate to grow up and leave Laurel for bigger and better opportunities, you knew that whenever you came back, you’d always have the diner.


That’s something not many towns can be proud of anymore. An authentic diner that’s literally served us for generations is something that should be celebrated—not rushed to its demise.


I’ll say this again: The City of Laurel has a chance to do something truly special.


When you first learned that this diner was quietly up for sale, something should’ve clicked in your collective mind… and said, “We need to save this building… We need to move this diner to Main Street.” Even if you didn’t realize what you had, you’re surrounded by people who value this town’s history. And we would’ve told you in a heartbeat.


The City refuses to explore any of these ideas for relocating the diner, where it could be revitalized under new ownership—and Pure Hana could open according to their original plans, without this façade modification that would only serve as a constant reminder of a lost opportunity for us all.


The City already has resources—the Maryland Main Street designation, packed with relocation incentives; the Community Redevelopment Authority, who’s been conspicuously and inexcusably absent through all of this, despite owning the very land on Main Street that could accommodate the diner.


You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something truly good for Laurel—something that could transform Main Street for generations to come. So that your children… and your children’s children, will also be able to say, “We always have the diner.”


I’ve explained why this would be a good thing. Before you agree to this sale, it’s time for the City to explain why they think it isn’t.


Of the three Tastee Diners in Maryland, only Laurel’s has never been listed as a historic landmark. This is a grievous oversight by the City, which has always had the authority to designate it. It’s one of only two remaining Comac diners known in existence. It’s the model that inspired the American stainless steel diner archetype. Regardless of what Mayor Moe or anyone else says, it is historic. And it belongs on Main Street.


When the diner’s previous owners, Walter and Harry Susini, signed the first lease in 1933, they purchased the land from John H. Fetty—who happened to be Laurel’s mayor at the time. The deed says that the property already included a building “known as the Laurel Diner”.
So it’s ironic that this diner’s lengthy history actually began with a mayor who made sure it was poised for long-term success. Today’s mayor, for whatever reason, seems a little too eager to be rid of it.

Richard Friend

After the final speaker had shared her concerns about the potential loss of this essential piece of the community, the Planning Commission set about its business. And the subject of distance and oversaturation came up again in the motion made by Rick Wilson.

Reminding those in attendance that the Commission’s role isn’t to determine anything other than whether or not Pure Hana can put their dispensary at this address, Mr. Wilson stated,

I strongly believe that we have adequate coverage of medical marijuana. Anybody that needs it can drive 3,700 feet from this location to the north and go to an existing dispensary… four and a half miles to Burtonsville, and there’s an existing dispensary… and 5,282 feet to Cherry Lane, and there will be a dispensary within X number of days. I don’t believe we need another dispensary. So I would move that we deny the recommendation to the Board of Appeals.

Hon. G. Rick Wilson

Those in attendance (at least, those not on the Pure Hana payroll) broke into applause—applause that only intensified when Mr. John Kish seconded the motion, and the reality began to sink in that this sale was not going to be approved. As the roll was called, each member of the Commission unanimously carried the motion.

Washington Post reporter Dana Hedgpeth (who’d just written a great piece in Sunday’s paper) was there for a follow-up report, and Fox 5 News was on the scene to produce a segment as well—which I had the surreal pleasure of watching on one of the TVs at (where else?) the Tastee Diner.

While at the diner, decompressing with a grilled cheese and cold beer, one of the cooks appeared from the back kitchen. Charles Durocher, a Vietnam veteran who proudly displays that honor on the baseball cap he wears, came over and shook my hand. The diner staff had been watching the Laurel TV broadcast of the Planning Commission meeting live. “I just wanted to say thank you.” Charles is one of at least two veterans I know of who work at the diner—hardworking veterans who’ve continued to do their jobs in spite of the palpable fear that the business will soon be sold.

I immediately thought of the veterans that Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri had spoken of earlier in the evening, and wondered if she’s aware of the veterans at the diner, whose modest jobs depend on that diner staying open.

Pure Hana didn’t comment after the ruling, but they’re expected to appeal the decision at the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting, also at the Laurel Municipal Center, starting at 7PM. I would urge everyone to attend that meeting as well, just in case the Boardmembers interpret anything differently.

Speaking of interpreting things differently, here’s something that might be critical…

After talking to Councilman Carl DeWalt, the stipulation that dispensaries must be at least one mile from each other within the city took an interesting turn. Is that rule really limited to “within the city”—or is it literal?

Here’s an excerpt from Laurel’s Unified Land Development Code, which actually cites the rule as defined in the Code of Maryland Regulations (“COMAR”):

I’m not a lawyer—or a politician, (and God knows I’d never want to be either) but that document doesn’t say anything about the one-mile rule being limited exclusively to within the City of Laurel. It says “The premises may not be located within one-mile of ANY other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis”. And it says that’s a Maryland regulation, not a City of Laurel one.

If that interpretation is correct, now you have to take into account the even shorter distance between the diner’s location at 118 Washington Blvd. and Revolution ReLeaf—the dispensary just up the street at the former Sam & Elsie’s. That’s definitely less than a mile away. Or, as Rick Wilson astutely noted, it’s only 3,700 feet away.

Needless to say, somebody’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, if it turns out that Pure Hana never should’ve even gotten this far along in the process. That seems like an important point that they should’ve squared away long before any of these plans developed.

That having been said, assuming the Board of Appeals upholds the Planning Commission’s recommendation, what’s next? We’ve finally heard from Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes, who admitted to the Washington Post that he’s had it up for sale for the past five years. He still wants to sell, and at 75 years old, that’s certainly his right.

Now is the perfect opportunity for the City of Laurel to rectify a few things. The diner needs to be given the historic designation it deserves, first and foremost. Next, the City of Laurel should be the ones to purchase it from Mr. Wilkes.

Let’s not forget the City’s press release from November 30th, which stated:

All agreed that the site of the current Tastee Diner is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.

“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18

It also said something else:

The Mayor has also asked the developer to allow the City of Laurel to have the right of first refusal for any future sale of the Diner. 

“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18

Those are quotes directly from the City’s press release, finally acknowledging what we’ve been trying to tell them all along. Now it’s time to hold them to it, and encourage them to explore the available options. But it has to start by talking with diner owner Gene Wilkes—and doing it with transparency this time.

Mayor Moe has stated that the city-owned vacant lot at 312 Main Street will likely become a parking lot. I still say that site would be perfect to relocate the diner to—fully intact, and fully operational. As an official part of the Historic District, (and officially a historic property) it would become eligible for those preservation benefits we’ve talked about, which Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones will be all-too eager to assist with.

Wouldn’t the City be more interested in developing the lot at 118 Washington Blvd. themselves? Wouldn’t a parking lot there make more sense, given the proximity to the MARC train station?

These are all questions we need to consider over the next few days. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of the City’s Planning Commission for their unanimous decision, but we still need to call upon the Board of Appeals to uphold their recommendation. Please attend that meeting next Thursday, December 20th at 7PM at the Municipal Center.

I sincerely hope the City of Laurel is listening this time around. Remember, despite this initial victory, the Tastee Diner is still up for sale. But now there’s a real opportunity—and path—for the City to do the right thing and make it a legitimate part of Laurel’s Historic District.

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