With fewer than three weeks to go before the official May 27 opening, the Trader Joe's at Burnt Mills Shopping Center along Route 29 already has signage, checkout counters and grocery shelves in place.
However, the fact that it's even there at all owes much to the efforts of neighborhood community associations and the attention of a developer with local ties.
Jacquie Bokow, a member of the Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association and editor of its newsletter, said she approached Bethesda-based developer Finmarc Management about a year and a half ago, offering to provide community feedback on what shops neighbors would like to see in the center.
"We put a story in our newsletter, and got feedback from our neighbors," she said. "Their No. 1 request was to have a Trader Joe's in the neighborhood ... the only other one is up in Columbia."
The campaign took several different channels, she added. "Somebody who lived in the community happened to work at Trader Joe's, and they took this to the upper management. Another person was in advertising, and they helped to let them know of our interest from many different avenues."
Buoyed by the community response, the grocery store signed on, and the proposed shopping center had gained an anchor to attract other businesses. A Starbucks coffee store has already opened, and by the end of May the Trader Joe's and Chico's clothing store are expected to open. California Tortilla restaurant will open in mid-June, and other stores including a Ritz Camera and Alchemy Salon will probably open by July 4, according to Finmarc spokesman Jon Rhodes.
Nearby businesses, including Choice Hotels across the street and the Burnt Mills automobile center next door have expressed approval of the shopping center, especially because of the newly installed traffic light across Route 29, which allows greater access, he said. Nearby employees also will have a place to eat lunch within walking distance -- but Rhodes says the future holds an even greater customer base.
"With the Food and Drug Administration relocating their offices [to White Oak], over the next five years there will be nearly 5,000 people in that part of the county," he said.
Finmarc has owned the land since 2000, but the Finmarc partners David Fink and Marc Solomon have a much longer shared history with the community.
"Both David and I grew up in Northwood," Solomon said, "and David's parents still live in the house he was raised in." For 18 years, Finmarc has owned and managed shopping centers including the Shops of Olney, Potomac Woods, Seminary Place and Piney Branch.
This may account for the high level of cooperation between community and construction. Bokow said the managers have installed a rainwater storage and filtration system to reduce parking lot runoff, which could otherwise damage the nearby Northwest Branch.
"They've not only been responsive to what the community wanted to see here, but they also bend over backwards on the environmental level," she said. "... That to me spoke volumes about their dedication to the community."
The traffic light provides far greater access to the businesses to the east of Route 29 and to the office buildings to the west, making it safer for cars to cross three lanes of oncoming traffic. However, the light also has changed traffic patterns along Route 29, according to Donald McKee, president of the Burnt Mills Homeowners Association.
"It's a nice-looking center: It's bright and it improves the area," he said. "The new traffic light is necessary, but I've heard concerns it will impede traffic."
Betsy Bretz, chairwoman of the Labquest association that has campaigned for the FDA in White Oak, said the addition of such key retail shops would help to attract FDA employees to the area.
"They are absolutely a great plus to the area, especially to FDA employees, many of whom are driving an hour and a half to two hours [to get to work]," she said. "... This is something we've needed for the community, but we need this even more so for 1,700 FDA employees who will start coming here in June."