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September 5, 2006

Jennifer's Folly

Roy Meachum

Jennifer's Folly sits across the street. Pushkin and I see it each time we walk out the front door. Her partner in making suckers out of city taxpayers goes on trial in Washington, on Friday. The news prompted this piece.

Handsome and beckoning, the new building stands empty. Its many parking spaces unused. Its windows reflecting the hollowness inside. Frederick's ex-mayor Jennifer Dougherty bears the overwhelming guilt for why the former grocery store remains vacant.

The world may not long remember Ms. Dougherty's first days in Frederick's most powerful chair. Discrediting her predecessor seemed her most important objective. To that end, she sold off properties Jim Grimes had acquired for the city. My across-the-street neighbor was known as Carmack-Jay's Super Market. It was once downtown's single source for life's necessities, like bread, milk and meat.

The small, Pennsylvania chain went belly-up, we were told, because other stores had their clocks cleaned by major competitors. Not here. The North Market Street operation continued to thrive until the very end, which spoke of the neighborhood's need for what it had to offer. So Mr. Grimes bought the building and its parking lot, figuring another decent tenant would come along. It didn't.

Instead, we received a "box store," an offshoot of an operation that once flourished in Baltimore's ethnic and minority precincts. The idea was to keep merchandise in its original box, to save the costs of unpacking the products on shelves. It was the very system that made customers feel second-rate. I never walked out of the store without feeling I was taking away grit and grime.

Developer Douglas Jamal could do better than that. Pointing to his many successful projects down the Washington pike, he serenaded City Hall. His shaved head bore no resemblance to the Rhine's Lorelei but his woven fantasies had pretty much the same effect. Of course, he wanted a break on the asking price. He got it.

At his public announcement held in the middle of the parking lot he served Danish and coffee. When asked about cappuccino, he replied: "Are you kidding? This is Frederick." My reply threw his con into a momentary pause, no more than that.

When I informed the man who newly owned the neighboring property that I could walk him into three establishments no more than five minutes away that offered all sorts of variety: cappuccino, espresso, latte and au lait, he simply blinked. Then his eyes settled back into the hoods they wore normally.

In the event, our paths have not really crossed since that Saturday. At times I spotted his trademark bald head and cowboy boots as he visited crews across the street. I watched the series of signs that went up and came down offering to lease the remodeled and thoroughly modernized former Carmack-Jay's location. Nothing's happened.

It's been almost exactly four years since Ms. Dougherty told the press she had found a buyer, although for less than her predecessor paid. She blamed the difference on Mr. Grimes, of course. She turned over other properties leftover from previous administrations on the same basis. She rationalized citizens would be better off in the long run, citing increased tax revenues and new jobs created. They never happened.

Shortly after the surprise sale went through, I wrote a News-Post column about how Mr. Jamal was famous in certain quarters, for sitting on properties until the neighborhood rose again. In no instance, scanning the Internet, did I find an example of when his properties had been pioneers. They inevitably stayed in a holding pattern until someone, something else, started the scramble that led to improved neighborhoods. His record was very clear.

North Market Street was still waiting for the handsome facility to announce tenants when Jennifer Dougherty died a political death last year. She took with her the brief-blooming fate of Frederick's neo-feminist hopes.

Four years ago, during those election campaigns, the newly elected Ms. Dougherty was the Queen of the Universe. As Frederick's first female mayor and the first Democrat in City Hall for 12 years, she was seized on as a trophy to show off around the state. She took over candidates' fundraising events, talking the audience into near mental paralysis before the main speaker opened her mouth.

Running against Republican incumbent Alex Mooney for his state Senate seat, Del. Sue Hecht compounded the tragedy by inviting Jennifer Dougherty along for a parade in Brunswick. The two ladies were roundly booed. That's not how things were supposed to go.

Days earlier, at a Defenders picnic, held at Lynnfield Events Center, Ms. Dougherty, Ms. Hecht and their assorted female supporters were joined by Commissioner Jan Gardner. There were no males at the table. Had they noticed the faces around them, worn by both women and men, they would not have been so sanguine.

In any event, by the time dust from the next elections settled Ms. Gardner was the sole survivor; all other participants had their careers smashed at the polls. The reason was Hubris; the Greek word for the madness the ancients held was the last stage before the gods destroyed human beings.

In 2005, Ms. Dougherty's re-election drive was brought up short; she became the first mayor, at least in modern times, to lose her office in a primary. Defying the odds, Ms. Hecht is campaigning for her old seat in the House of Delegates again; realizing her mistake for taking on Frederick's senior senator she simply wants to live as it was. When votes are counted in November, she doesn't figure to be a winner.

And so it goes.

Fate has not been kind to Mr. Jamal either. The developer who mesmerized City Hall goes on trial Friday in a Washington federal court on corruption charges. He allegedly bribed the former deputy director of the District's Office of Property Management. Lots of bucks are involved. In addition, his "dream team" of lawyers did not come cheap.

Sitting at his defense table will be his son and the only non-family member on trial. In other words, convictions would cut the head off Douglas Development and throw further up in the air the question of the former Carmack-Jays.

Some might think it's not fair to fault Jennifer Dougherty, under the circumstances, but she bears alone the responsibility for favoring Mr. Jamal over local applicants for the property. Shortly after Douglas Development was announced the winner, several friends and acquaintances came to me.

The former mayor's fervent desire for making her predecessor look bad amounted to a crusade of deeds and words, repeated constantly. She was in such a hurry to prove Jim Grimes wrong that she rushed to award property to Douglas Jamal.

True, the developer had not been indicted four years ago, not yet, but his status as a professional hustler was obvious to any who met him. Not due diligence, but a simple background check would have shown the man let his properties languish in a backwater until someone else/anything else set the neighborhood's improvement into motion.

Before her political victory, Jennifer Dougherty enjoyed renown as a shrewd businesswoman, fully capable of running a successful restaurant on West Patrick and a pricey Irish store in Everedy Square. The store just closed and there are rumors that the restaurant suffers, supposedly because, in her hubris, she tried to tell customers how to enjoy their meals.

She has only herself to blame. What a pity!

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