Tag Archives: Laurel History Boys

Postmark Laurel is here!

Postmark Laurel, my new 280-page hardcover anthology of historic postcards from our hometown, has finally been printed and is in stock!

I’ve completed mailings to all the Kickstarter campaign supporters who helped make it possible, and it’s wonderful hearing how well the book is being received.

Of course, no compliment was greater than seeing my mom’s reaction when she realized that the book was dedicated to her.

If you have family or friends with a longtime connection to Laurel, I’m sure they’re going to enjoy this book. The postcards span a range from the early 1900s to the 1990s, and feature many buildings, businesses, landmarks you’ll remember—and many you’ve probably never seen before.

Order yours now at postmarklaurel.com, and get it while you can—the short run supply is limited.

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Relay for Life

I’ll be walking with my fellow Laurel History Boys this Saturday, June 8th in our first ever Relay for Life, benefiting the American Cancer Society.

The event takes place at McCullough Field in Laurel from 2PM to midnight. We can still use your help—in more ways than one!

A small donation on our Team Page will help us make a bigger impact. We’ve raised over $850 to date—which is terrific for a first-time effort; but we’d love to raise more. We’re currently #18 out of 31 teams. Every dollar helps, so please consider giving.

We could also use some help with the walking itself! The concept of the Relay for Life is that at least one teammate is constantly walking the course. Just as cancer never sleeps, the team keeps moving. Some teams have 10 or more members; but it’s just the three of us. So if you’d like to join our team and stop by to walk a few laps, we’d be grateful!

Please visit our Relay for Life Team Page to learn more about the event—that’s where you can also sign up or make a donation. When you’re at the Relay tomorrow, look for our red canopy with the Laurel History Boys banner and stop by to say hello!

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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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Diner Appreciation Day: a recap

Richard Friend, Pete Lewnes, and Kevin Leonard. (Photo: Michael G. Stewart)

Saturday morning, January 19th was an extra-special day at the Tastee Diner. The Laurel History Boys’ “Diner Appreciation Day” saw an outpouring of residents and diner fans from all over the region. Between trying to eat breakfast and chatting with as many folks as possible, it was hard to get an accurate headcount—but the parking lot remained full from before the event began at 9AM until well after noon. And Sunday was a near-repeat, as the diner was packed once more.

Photos © Karen Jackson / For Baltimore Sun Media Group

The purpose of this event was twofold: we wanted to thank diner owner Gene Wilkes and his hardworking staff for the nearly 43 years they’ve maintained the Laurel location. We also wanted to remind Mayor Craig Moe and the City of Laurel that the diner remains important to this community, and that the City’s Community Redevelopment Authority should explore every available opportunity to purchase the endangered building (if not the full property itself) if and when the Pure Hana Synergy application is officially denied. The Board of Appeals hearing is scheduled for this Thursday night, January 24th at 7PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

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Richard Friend with Laurel Historical Society president Jhanna Levin and Prince George’s County Council Member Tom Dernoga. (Photo: Karen Lubieniecki)

Diner staff went the extra mile, decorating the car with balloons and ensuring that customers were seated and served promptly. Karen Lubieniecki of the Laurel Historical Society shared the following photo gallery:

And City Councilmember Carl DeWalt posted on Facebook after the event:

Saturday morning attended “The Diner Appreciation Day.” The parking lot was completely full and the Diner was packed with our hometown residents. The honorable Prince George’s Co Councilmember Tom Dernoga and members of his staff attended and enjoyed a delicious Diner breakfast. Edith, my new friend, told us she has been coming to the Diner for the past 40 years and considers the Diner “Home” and the Diner staff and patrons family! Since 1985 when I became a resident and employee of the City of Laurel the theme surrounding Laurel was the revitalization of Main St. History indicates this has been a very very slow process. The outpouring of support I witnessed yesterday for the Diner by our citizens is a golden opportunity to help preserve that structure, move it to Main St. and finally achieve a huge step forward in this revitalization process!

Carl DeWalt, Councilmember, Ward 1

The pending sale to Pure Hana Synergy was unanimously denied on December 11th, and while the medical marijuana dispensary firm has been planning its appeal, I believe that we’ll ultimately learn that their application never should have received the City’s initial endorsement. A town’s Municipal Code can only be bent so far, and Thursday night’s hearing should remove all doubt.

While most are optimistic that the Board of Appeals will uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation, the diner’s future is far from safe. Owner Gene Wilkes has made it abundantly clear that he still wants to sell. He mentioned having at least two additional offers on his property–both of which would result in the loss of the diner. This is why it’s imperative that the City of Laurel work with him (or his prospective buyers) on a solution that would allow the diner car to be preserved and relocated.

Mr. Wilkes spoke at length about the challenges he’s faced for years while running the Laurel diner, particularly with keeping it open 24 hours a day in a location that has been prone to crime. He also spoke about his refusal to ever allow it to be designated as a historic property, citing regulations that the City imposes on such properties, and how he believes it would only further hinder his ability to sell.

Despite his pleasant and courteous demeanor, I think Mr. Wilkes still views anyone interested in saving the diner as somehow impeding his right to sell it. I’ve tried to explain that this isn’t the case at all. He has more than earned the right to sell and retire. Pure Hana Synergy’s application to purchase it simply should’ve been negated long before it reached this point—and that has nothing to do with diner preservationists, but everything to do with the City’s own Municipal Code. We’re only interested in seeing the building relocated to Main Street, where a new owner can be incentivized to breathe new life into it.

As Saturday’s event showed beyond a doubt, there is an abundance of love for this diner; and with proper advertising and sustained community engagement, it clearly has tremendous potential for the Historic District. The City of Laurel should be exploring ways to purchase it, protect it, and give it the historic designation it deserves.

Based on his extensive experience in Laurel, Mr. Wilkes is correct on many points which reinforce his desire to sell the Laurel location. But by the same token, it’s unfair to measure the Laurel diner’s performance against that of his other locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring—areas that have nearly triple the population and more robust economies.

In the hands of a motivated new owner—an owner who will perhaps decide to limit the business to regular operating hours, consistently engage in public outreach efforts, (much like the highly-successful 29 Diner in Fairfax does) and take full advantage of the many preservation grants and incentives available to a historic location—this diner can positively thrive.

Please plan on attending the Board of Appeals hearing this Thursday night at the Laurel Municipal Center, and let City officials know that you expect them to do right by this historic diner. There are numerous resources to explore, including crowdfunding, angel investors, and others who could contribute to a hugely successful relocation and reopening on Main Street.

Thursday, January 24, 2019
7PM
Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Road
Laurel, MD 20707

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Diner Appreciation Day

TASTEE DINER-APPRECIATION-DAY.png

Join The Laurel History Boys Saturday morning, January 19th from 9:00 AM–12:00 PM at the Tastee Diner, as we hope to draw an an extra-large breakfast crowd of Save the Diner supporters! It will be the last weekend before the pivotal Board of Appeals meeting that will decide whether or not Pure Hana Synergy can purchase the site and convert it to a medical marijuana dispensary. That hearing is tentatively set for Thursday, January 24th at 7 PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

The hearing, originally scheduled for December 20th, was delayed by over a month at Pure Hana’s request after the Planning Commission unanimously voted to deny their application at the December 11th meeting.

While it’s expected that the Board of Appeals committee will uphold the ruling, Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes has made it clear that he still intends to sell the property. After nearly 43 years of operating the Laurel location, he’s earned the right to retire.

When Mr. Wilkes took over the diner in 1976, he technically saved it, himself. Had it not become part of his Tastee Diner chain when it did, there’s a very good chance that it wouldn’t have survived into the next decade. Much like Outrider’s Diner just up the street in North Laurel, it would have disappeared from the landscape before generations of Laurelites could enjoy its affordable fare and authentic 1950s ambiance.

As a way of saying thank you to Mr. Wilkes—and showing the City of Laurel that the diner remains a relevant and vital part of this town—we’re asking you to come out to the diner in force Saturday morning, January 19th.

Whether it’s just for a cup of coffee or a full-blown breakfast, please come support the diner and its hardworking staff. With over 2,300 petition signatures, we’ve already shown the City leaders that people want to save the diner. Now let’s show them in person, en masse.

With the Pure Hana deal out of the picture, this is the opportunity for the City of Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority to step in and make an offer for the property—or, at the very least, to negotiate a purchase of the diner itself—in order to relocate it to property that the City owns at 312 Main Street.

main-street-plus-diner-1

Adding the diner to the Historic District would bring long-term benefits the likes of which the CRA will probably never see again. Once it receives historic designation, the diner would qualify for state and county preservation grants, among other funding. The Maryland Main Street Program, which Laurel is now a part of, would provide further aide in this transition.

But most importantly, the City should, by now, see the economic potential that this diner would bring to Main Street. If they don’t, a large turnout with media coverage will make the picture even clearer.

Diner Appreciation Day
Saturday, January 19, 2019
9 AM – 12 PM
Tastee Diner Laurel
118 Washington Blvd.

Facebook event page

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Tastee Diner: Mayor’s Press Release

Keychain, 1980s. Lost Laurel collection

Late Friday afternoon, the City of Laurel issued the following press release:

“Today Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe and members of his Senior Management Staff met with Ms. Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri owner of Pure Hana Synergy Medical Dispensary and the developer of the property at 118 Washington Blvd, Laurel, Maryland, and her development consultants and Mr. Douglas Hayes, Chair, City of Laurel Historical District Commission.

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. It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location.

Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri has agreed with the Mayor’s proposal to keep the Tastee Diner in its location and reuse the building for her business, to allow the diner to be visible and not encapsulated by a structure around it and to provide for signage providing historical information about the Diner. It was also agreed that the developer would include in the development plans the placement of silhouettes in some of the windows of the Diner to further enhance the historic aesthetics of the building façade.

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.

Attendees saw new proposals for the renovation of the property and the thoughtful reuse of the Tastee Diner façade and building and agreed it met their goals and that of the community members who spoke at the Mayor and City Council meeting on Monday, November 26, 2018.

Mayor Moe stated “It is good to have the developer listen to the City and the residents of the community, and take action, the right action, that will preserve the Tastee Diner, while adding a nice reuse of the building.”

Chairman Douglas Hayes stated his satisfaction that this is a “good reuse of the building, and the new drawings of the Tastee Diner are outstanding, keeping the Tastee Diner building at its present location while adding a new business to the Route 1 corridor.”

Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri stated that she was “thankful to the community for their input and the assistance she has received from the City of Laurel.” Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri also stated she would be happy to work with the members of the Laurel Historical Society to donate some of the Tastee Diner furniture from inside the diner and signage.

The City of Laurel Planning Commission will hear the special exception application on the property at 118 Washington Blvd. on December 11, 2018 at 7:00 pm, the public is invited.”

Released on November 30, 2018 – 4:10pm  |  cityoflaurel.org

When announced on their Facebook page under the subjective headline of “Good news for the future preservation of the Tastee Diner,” the press release was met with a hearty serving of derision, support… and confusion:

I was confused as well. Not by what is now being proposed, but by how we got here.

Suddenly, the City is claiming that the diner “is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.” Most of them did not feel that way up until yesterday.

The agreement that Mayor Craig Moe reached with Pure Hana Synergy is better than the alternative—that being the total encapsulation and hiding of the diner that was in their original plans. But it is in no way what I’ve been suggesting, and what over 1,900 people to date have signed the petition for.

The petition calls for the City to explore ways to have the best of both worlds—to allow Pure Hana Synergy to still build their dispensary on the site, but to procure the historic portion of the diner, ultimately finding a developer who could revitalize it on Main Street where it could continue as a functioning, authentic diner. That has been my goal from the start.

I posed that idea to Mayor Moe in an email on November 1st—exactly one month ago today, and weeks before starting the petition. He never replied.

Despite a very select few at City Hall—chiefly Councilman Carl DeWalt—I can assure you that the City was not interested in preserving anything about the Tastee Diner. Which makes their press release ironic at best.

When all of the facts come out, I think we’ll discover that Pure Hana Synergy was lead to believe that not only did the City have zero interest in preserving the diner, they were anxious to be rid of it—quickly and quietly. I think we’ll also discover that the reason they’re insisting on repurposing the diner (rather than the logical building of a new structure from scratch on the larger lot) is to take advantage of grandfathered utilities clauses that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.

That being said, I’m disappointed that the mayor decided to have a closed-door meeting, attended only by him and his “senior management staff”—which, curiously, did not include the City Council—and certainly not anyone from the Laurel Historical Society, who’d also lobbied for the removal and preservation of the diner car. This group alone created the unilateral agreement outlined in their press release.

The agreement suggests that the exterior façade of the diner will now become an integral part of Pure Hana Synergy’s new building. But that’s all that will remain of it—the interior will be completely gutted, and the diner—one of only two remaining Comac models in existence—will be effectively destroyed.

Yes, it’s a small victory that our historic diner will in some way be adaptively preserved, but let’s be honest—what a complete waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this was for the City of Laurel, and Main Street in particular. The integrated look that Pure Hana Synergy is now promising to create using the façade of the diner could have been achieved by a new developer on Main Street—where we would have still had a fully-functioning diner.

The fact that the City was so unwilling to explore any of the many available resources to achieve this reflects poorly on its leaders. And the lack of transparency as it pertains to the CRA (the Donna Crary-led Community Redevelopment Authority that has purchased properties on Main Street which could have easily housed the relocated diner) is even more troublesome. Not once was the CRA part of the discussion, nor would the City respond to multiple requests to explain their absence.

This particular statement in the press release—“It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location”—reminded me of a similarly laughable story I heard a few years ago. Without naming names, suffice it to say that a popular longtime Laurel businessman (who, like many in Laurel politics, has little affinity for historic preservation) once relayed the following:

“Someone once claimed to have found some Native American artifacts on my property, and approached me about preserving the land to ensure that they wouldn’t be disturbed. I promised him that I’d come up with a solution that would preserve the artifacts exactly where they were, and that no one would be able to touch them. He was satisfied with that, so I paved over it and made it a parking lot.”

Keeping the Tastee Diner in its original location, even with this amended plan that promises to no longer encapsulate it, hardly saves it. It will, however, be a constant reminder of what might have been.


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Tastee Diner: City Council Meeting Recap

NBC4’s Jackie Benson knew she was in Laurel Monday night, even if one of her video producers apparently didn’t.

Laurel/Lanham… what’s the difference, right? Well, Laurel is the one with the rare Tastee Diner that may soon be disappearing.

Benson was in town covering the Mayor and City Council Meeting. Or, just the City Council Meeting, as it were—attendees were informed that Mayor Craig Moe was actually still in Florida for the holiday.

The reason for the local news coverage was the general public hearing, in which representatives from the Laurel Historical Society and the City of Laurel’s own Historic District Commission Chairman spoke eloquently in favor of saving the diner.

After Jhanna Levin, Douglas Hayes, and Karen Lubieniecki spoke to rousing applause, City Council President Mike Leszcz offered only a terse reply:

That was it—no further elaboration. And whether Mr. Leszcz intended it or not, the impression it gave was that the Mayor and City Council don’t have a say in whether the sale of the diner is approved or not. That decision now falls on the Planning Commission and the Board of Appeals.

That being duly noted, the purpose of calling attention to the Mayor and City Council in the first place was never to block to the sale of the property at all. It was simply to urge them to do their due diligence in exploring options that might allow them to successfully take ownership of the historic 1951 Comac-built diner car, and relocate it to benefit Main Street—without adversely affecting Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to build their dispensary at the diner’s former location.

If you watch that NBC4 segment (again, ignoring the fact that it says “Lanham” throughout the piece) Mr. Leszcz makes a statement to Jackie Benson:

Mr. Leszcz, whom I know not only has a deep appreciation for Laurel’s history, but for the Tastee Diner itself—at the City Council meeting, he spoke at length of his fondness for it and his memory of the Tuozzo family, who co-owned the diner along with the Sussinis before Gene Wilkes took over in 1976. But you don’t have to read between the lines here to see that he hasn’t exactly been looking for a creative solution to save it.

Why would he say that the City doesn’t have the money, when he literally just admitted that he doesn’t know how much it would actually cost to move the diner?

That’s exactly why we approached the Mayor and City Council with this petition in the first place—to seek those answers. To seek out partners like Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones Heritage Area who are literally asking to help with this endeavor. Partners who have the knowledge and means to assist with grants and other incentives that the City Council seems to know very little about, frankly.

And make no mistake, that’s their duty. Elected officials are supposed to have the City’s best interest in mind, and constantly seek creative ways to benefit Laurel for the long term. Not to simply facilitate a sale in the interest of “cleaning up” a blighted block.

And honestly, my perception thus far has been that some at City Hall—certainly not everyone, by any means—have viewed this idea of saving the diner as an act of sheer folly; that it’s somehow an inconvenience to them to even have to entertain such an impossible notion of moving that diner.

If that’s indeed the case, I think that’s incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible to not even consider what might be achieved on Main Street by preserving and revitalizing such a rare piece of history—a piece of history that is otherwise going to be lost so unnecessarily in the building of this dispensary.

Mr. Leszcz’s comment about the City not having the money for something like this kind of stands at odds with another point he brought up at the meeting—about Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority, and their recent purchase of the Gude Mansion at Laurel Lakes, which I assume the City plans to extensively renovate with the idea of renting the facility out for weddings and such. That can’t be cheap. But then, good investments usually aren’t. Regardless, it prompted me to take a look at the public land records for these recent purchases, including the old Laurel Theatre at 312 Main Street, and the Laurel Town Lodge boarding house at 41 B Street.

I’m sure these were wise investments–I don’t doubt that for a moment. They’re investments that will eventually benefit the city in various ways. But they raise two very big questions: are they any wiser than investing in relocating the diner to Main Street, where a new owner could be incentivized to renovate it into something truly special? And should the City really be so quick to dismiss a creative idea with the notion that they “don’t have the money”?

That being said, the next step is the December 11th Planning Commission Meeting, followed by the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting.


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Tastee Diner Petition Update

Photo: ©The Baltimore Sun, 1981

In 1981, a longtime waitress known as “Miss May” takes an order from a Tastee Diner patron sitting right about where the Laurel History Boys typically do today. This Baltimore Sun photo, like the diner itself, is timeless. It could’ve been taken this afternoon, or even 30 years before it actually was taken, when the new Laurel Diner first opened its doors at 118 Washington Boulevard in 1951.

The diner property is being sold to Pure Hana Synergy, a medical marijuana dispensary that plans to modify the building by encasing it.

I started a petition last week, to gather signatures not to block the sale of the property, but to support saving the ultra-rare, 1951 Comac-built diner car—now one of only two left in existence that look and function very much as they did when they were made nearly 70 years ago.

The idea is simple in theory: have the City of Laurel first designate the diner car as a historic property—which it rightfully should be. Next, work with Pure Hana Synergy, (the buyer) Gene Wilkes, (the seller) and groups such as Preservation Maryland to see how best to remove the diner car and relocate it to Main Street without adversely affecting the buyer’s original plans for the site.

In less than five days, the petition has grown to over 1,100 signatures. Many of the signers are current residents of Laurel (voting residents, some were quick to point out) who want to ensure that the diner doesn’t disappear, literally or figuratively.

Entombing the diner within a new structure would only serve to do just that—hide it from view and end a nearly 90-year tradition of having an original diner in Laurel’s historic district. Instead, the city should do whatever it can to relocate the diner to Main Street, and incentivize a new buyer or developer to give it new life in its new location.

Coincidentally, Laurel has just become the first city in Prince George’s County to be designated in the Main Street Maryland program—a comprehensive downtown revitalization program created in 1998 by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Check out the description of this program, and I think you’ll agree that it only makes our case for relocating the diner to Main Street that much stronger. Better yet, watch this short video about it from Laurel TV:

There are two potential sites on Main Street, both currently vacant lots which could accommodate the relocated diner:

  1. 312 Main Street, which was the home of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre.
  2. The Farmers’ Market lot at Main & Avondale Streets.

A third possibility is to open discussions with C Street Flats about integrating the diner with their plans to expand toward Main Street. Any of these options would not only save the historic diner car, but give it a chance to thrive in a new environment that would reinvigorate Main Street as well.

Laurel residents, please go to the next City Council meeting on Monday, November 26th at 7PM, and let them know that you signed this petition—along with over 1,100 other people who want to see our historic diner preserved and moved to Main Street.

21st Mayor and City Council Meeting – Council Chambers
Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Rd
Laurel, MD 20707
Mayor and City Council Meeting
Monday, November 26, 2018 – 7:00pm to 9:00pm

City officials know that the petition exists, but please remind them why. It’s not just about any old restaurant closing, and it’s not just about trying to save any old building. Allowing the Tastee Diner to be wrapped and hidden within a new business would be an inexcusable wasted opportunity, particularly in light of Laurel’s new Main Street Maryland award.

I’ve likened this to the closing of a vintage car dealership. Sure, the business can close or change hands; but you wouldn’t destroy the classic cars in the showroom in the process, would you?

Please add your name to the petition to Save the Laurel Tastee Diner, and share the link.

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Save the Tastee Diner

rich-diner-raphael-talisman-gazette

Photo: © Raphael Talisman, Maryland Gazette

It goes without saying that the Tastee Diner is one of my favorite places.

It’s one of the last vestiges of the real Laurel—an authentic, original 1951 diner built by the legendary Comac company and delivered to the site that same year, when the Second Street bypass was opened, splitting Route 1 north and south.

The diner replaced a previous iteration, which had occupied the site since 1934. That one was shipped off to Baltimore, where it became the State Diner (now long gone.)

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The State Diner as it appeared in 1981. In its previous life, it had been the Laurel Diner, from 1934–1951. (Photo: © Baltimore Sun)

1950s-postcard

Laurel Diner, 1950s postcard. (Lost Laurel collection)

I won’t attempt to get into the full history of the Laurel Tastee Diner in this post. (To get an idea of that, you can watch a brief teaser for the video I’m still producing below.) But, suffice it to say, it’s a true piece of Laurel’s history.

Remarkably, the building—now 67 years old—still looks and functions very much as it did in its heyday. It’s a veritable time capsule. That’s one reason I enjoy spending so much time there, comparing notes and research with the Laurel History Boys.

That, and the staff are practically like family. When my father was undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, my parents would drive from their home in Salisbury to meet me at the diner. (They were afraid of driving into Baltimore themselves.) The waitresses would keep an eye on my truck in the parking lot while I chauffeured my parents.

And when my dad passed away in April, the staff even signed a sympathy card for me.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the diner property is being sold—and the buyer has extensive plans to render it completely unrecognizable… and turn it into a medical marijuana dispensary.

diner-plans

Architectural rendering of Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to convert the diner site.

Let me re-frame for a moment and make something clear–Gene Wilkes and his family have done an amazing job keeping not just one, but a trio of classic diners going for decades. He’s certainly earned the right to sell the business.

Likewise, Pure Hana Synergy, the company purchasing the diner site, has every right to open their new venture—which will not only offer a valuable service, allowing patients access to legal medical cannabis, they’ll undoubtedly clean up a site that has long needed improvement.

That brings me to another important point—the optics of the Tastee Diner having been seen as a “less than savory” spot for some time now.

Depending whom you ask, perception of the diner varies greatly. Some are purists who genuinely appreciate the authenticity. Then there are those who view the place as “dirty”, or a hotbed criminal activity.

The reality is that the diner gets a bad rap for two other establishments it shares ownership with: the TD Lounge and the adjacent motel. Problems that have required police response have typically involved the bar and the motel—not the diner itself. But because of its central location, the diner is often seen as the hub of this negative activity.

When Pure Hana Synergy purchases the property, they plan to modify the diner and the TD Lounge building that adjoins it, wrapping it in a modern façade and gutting the interior. The motel will be demolished, as will the large white house on the lot facing Second Street.

But the diner itself shouldn’t deserve this fate.

The diner doesn’t yet have the prestigious “historic designation” that some buildings receive, protecting them from development. It has been considered for it—but that was over 20 years ago, when diners such as it were ubiquitous throughout the east coast and beyond. The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a survey in May, 1998, and deemed the Tastee Diner as being “ineligible” for various reasons. (See the excerpt below for their crietria):

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 11.18.18 PM

But how about now—when Laurel’s Tastee Diner is one of only two surviving, fully-intact Comac-built diners known in the entire country? (The only other being Jack’s Diner in Albany, NY.) Countless others have been demolished, or modified beyond recognition—just as the Tastee Diner is now facing.

Historian Spencer Stewart, who created the wonderful Diner Hunter website, shared this important insight:

In Maryland, once home to dozens of factory built diners, and a hotbed of trolley conversions back in the day, there are only four (or so) old diners still open. Of those, the Tastee in Laurel is arguably the most in-tact and has the longest history on the site, going back in various buildings almost 90 years. The gutting of the Laurel Tastee and its conversion to a dispensary would be an enormous loss of a rare survivor of something that was once ubiquitous in mid-atlantic culture and is now severely endangered.

I’ve proposed that the City of Laurel work with the owners of Pure Hana Synergy to preserve the diner car itself—which isn’t a linchpin of their architectural plan, anyway. The diner portion can be relocated. (Remember, it arrived here from New Jersey by truck in 1951—it can certainly be moved again.)

In fact, this is something that owner Gene Wilkes is all-too familiar with. In June, 2000, he collaborated with Montgomery County to relocate the historic diner car when Discovery Communications decided to build their headquarters on the diner’s original site. (Ironically, Discovery has since moved on—while the Tastee Diner remains successful in its new location.)

To that note, the City of Laurel has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to either seize for themselves, or to work with a developer such as C Street Flats (who already plans to expand to Main Street). Imagine relocating the diner, perhaps to the empty lot at 312 Main Street, which was the site of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. The city wasn’t keen on salvaging any parts of that old building—but the lot has sat vacant now for two years. Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority has been soliciting proposals for the property ever since. From their RFP:

The CRA purchased the property in 2014 in order to develop the property and is seeking ideas, a vision, and a methodology from experienced developers to transform this key site into a use that will complement the adjacent residential neighborhood and enhance Main Street while adding to the success of Main Street commercial core. The development of the Site will set the direction for new redevelopment along the City’s Main Street.

Imagine for a moment the Laurel/Tastee Diner in that spot—accessible from anywhere along Main Street by foot. There’d still be space for parking, and delivery access from Fetty Alley. Imagine the diner on its own—free from the stigma of the troublesome bar and motel, and under new management that will restore and maintain the historic building. Maybe it doesn’t have to be open 24 hours anymore, either.

If you’ve ever been to the fully-restored 29 Diner in Fairfax, VA, you’ll get a sense of what a landmark diner can be, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that a renewed dedication to Laurel’s Tastee Diner would be any less successful.

I’m certainly not the only one who believes that this should happen. I started a petition on Change.org that gained over 600 signatures in the first day alone. Please click here to add your name to the list, to let all interested parties know that this diner should not be lost.

Laurel’s elected officials should realize that if properly managed, the diner could become an incredible heritage tourism attraction for Laurel, transforming Main Street and giving both it and this historic diner a new lease on life.

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