Business owners favor natural gas proposition in Hurlock

Hurlock, Maryland
HURLOCK — Anticipating the appearance of a representative from natural gas supplier Chesapeake Utilities, several members of Hurlock’s business community and Seniors & Citizens Association attended the Town Council meeting on April 10 to express their viewpoints. Gas utility representatives were not at the meeting but will be available at the April 27 council meeting.

Hurlock Mayor Joyce Spratt said, “I’ve been accused of not wanting it (natural gas) in Hurlock and it’s absolutely not true.” She explained that she and the council opened the discussion on natural gas in 2010. “I can’t make Chesapeake Utilities come here and put natural gas in. It’s got to be a money maker for them.” She added the town sent over 700 surveys to residents to gauge interest and received only a few in return. An informal survey of industrial park tenants in 2011 garnered no interest.

In a Banner interview with Frank Bittner, head of the Hurlock Seniors & Citizens Association and a major player in the drive to bring natural gas to the town, Mr. Bittner explained that the group’s push is only focused on the downtown business community in the short term.

Food Rite owner Harry Patel could not attend but told Mr. Bittner “you know I’m from India and we’ve had natural gas there for 75 years. Why is it so hard for Hurlock?”

Pastor Kevin Gillespie said, “As a church and entity interested in saving money and ecologically conservative, our church would be interested if it became an option.” He said his church spends $9,000 yearly on oil and could save between 30-40 percent with natural gas. Business owner J.C. Collins wants the option of natural gas for his own business but also as a draw for new businesses.

Michele Seretis, Pizza Palace owner, is strongly in favor of natural gas to help increase her business and save money on energy costs.
Former Councilman Chris Adams explained he owns a commercial property and several homes in town that he would be willing to consider for natural gas. He said it is cheaper and more convenient than oil and an important factor in bringing businesses to Hurlock.
A representative from Stop & Shop agreed that natural gas is cheaper and he would like the opportunity to use it at his store.

No one spoke against bringing the energy source to town.

In May, 2011, Chesapeake Utilities and Hurlock signed a franchise agreement. The letter accompanying the agreement stated: “Our position is that having a franchise agreement will enable the town to attract more businesses. And as additional expansion becomes more economic for us natural gas will provide an additional economical energy source for those who select this fuel option.”

Mr. Bittner feels that the utility wishes to attract only large businesses. “They don’t want to serve the small, local businesses. Now these small businesses are coming forward for that option.” He explained, “That agreement allows them (the utility) to cherry pick the customers. It was the town’s obligation at that point (2011) to set the guidelines.”

Former Councilman Parker Durham volunteered, “When the franchise agreement was signed the current customers were already on natural gas and the council signed on to the agreement to try and perpetuate more customers. Since that original agreement was signed, no additional customers have come on. Nothing has changed. That agreement really didn’t have any teeth in it. The people being served were already being served.”

Mr. Bittner called for an official, written request from the Mayor and Council to Chesapeake Utilities stating the town’s commitment to bringing natural gas to small businesses in addition to current consumers like Amick Poultry, B&G Foods, and the town’s elementary school. Mr. Bittner added, “No matter what, we would like to get natural gas to our smaller businesses. How can we make this happen?”

Councilman Earl Murphy asked what Mr. Bittner considers the business district. He said, from Maryland Avenue to the Full Gospel Church, and including the bank building, Food Rite, and the Shop Stop which is already close to a gas line tap.

Mayor Spratt suggested that “a letter wouldn’t have more teeth in it than if we ask them at the next meeting.” But Mr. Bittner persisted, saying the “town needs to make this happen – not the individual businesses.” He added that a letter of intent puts the public utility on notice that Hurlock needs the natural gas option in its local business community.

The Mayor suggested that Chesapeake Utilities would ask how much of a commitment does the town have from the business community; and, the businesses would ask, “What are the legal commitments and for how long and how much is it going to cost?” She suggested posing those questions on April 27.

Ms. Spratt agreed to write to Chesapeake Utilities to include not just downtown businesses but the entire Enterprise Zone. Councilman Charles Cephas agreed, saying the letter is “excellent common ground” and will show the Council’s and the Mayor’s resolve. He asked that Town Attorney Robert Merriken review the letter.

When Mr. Bittner asked for a copy of the letter, the Mayor said she would send it directly to the utility company. She agreed that a letter of intent is more official than a “request” but “I don’t agree with giving you a copy of the letter so you can do with it what you want. I think it should go straight to Chesapeake Utilities. It should also be from the Council.”

Councilman Cephas said that in previous discussions between the Mayor, Council, and Chesapeake Utilities that “residential supply was long-range” but the businesses were the key factor they were looking at. He suggested that those who are in favor of natural gas coming to the town ask all their questions “candidly and honestly” on April 27 and then “we’ll be cooking with gas.”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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