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Latinos Vow Boycott Over Loss of Field

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2000; Page B01

A coalition of civic groups and Latino organizations vowed yesterday to boycott Eckerd drugstores and their corporate parent, JCPenney Co., in a bid to halt development of a sandlot in the Culmore section of Fairfax County that neighbors use as a gathering place and soccer field.

At a news conference attended by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), the local leaders said they would start picketing on Monday. Davis and Byrne pledged to support the boycott, which organizers said would last at least through May.

"This is a sad day for Culmore," Davis said as rain pelted the 1.45-acre lot, which Eckerd suddenly bulldozed and fenced on Thursday after three years of controversy and uncertainty over its fate. Davis said he had earmarked $2 million in federal funds to help buy the site and turn it into a park. Instead, Eckerd, which leases the land from its North Carolina owner, is moving ahead with plans for a store, over the vocal objections of some in the community.

About 10,000 people, most of them Latino immigrants, live in apartment complexes along the Route 7 corridor in Culmore. Over the years, they had turned the crabgrass-and-dirt field into an ad hoc park and playground. Parents said they felt safe sending their children to play in a place where gangs, drugs and alcohol were not welcome.

Neighbors say that the area does not need another pharmacy/convenience store because there are already seven within one mile of the Culmore field.

J. Walter Tejada, Virginia director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said yesterday he expects "thousands of people" to support the boycott and predicted that it could spread. "Eckerd is insulting the integrity of our community, not only locally but nationally," he said.

Eckerd, though, released a statement saying it had "worked in good faith with the community on their desire to purchase the property. . . . Unfortunately, the timeline agreed upon with the community to make a firm offer has lapsed, and we need to proceed."

The statement expressed disappointment over the looming boycott, noting that Eckerd had agreed to renovate a soccer field at the local elementary school. "Eckerd is committed to being a good neighbor and an asset to the Baileys Crossroads community," the company said.

Community leaders say the school soccer field is no substitute for the Culmore lot because it is already heavily used and must be booked in advance.

JCPenney Co. declined to comment on the dispute yesterday.

For years, Culmore residents have used the open field as "a communal front yard, town square, sports arena and classroom," gathering there in the evenings and on weekends to play games, exchange job information, learn how to buy a car or simply chat with one another, said Juan C. Dulanto, chairman of the Inter-American Development Foundation, an Alexandria-based civic group that focuses on Latino issues.

"I was outraged to learn about Eckerd Corporation's disregard for this neighborhood," Dulanto said at yesterday's news conference. "Do you think the community will patronize this new store they want to build? . . . Do not expect us to purchase any goods from local JCPenney or Eckerd stores for the remainder of April and May. Maybe then they will learn to respect poor American neighborhoods."

Dulanto said picketing would start at the Springfield Mall Penney's store on May 1; if Eckerd goes ahead with its plans, Dulanto vowed that the picketing would last "forever."

For her part, Byrne said she "won't be buying anything from an Eckerd Drug or a JCPenney's," accusing the two companies of missing "an opportunity to be well thought of in the community." Byrne added: "I remain committed to doing whatever I can . . . to save the property for a soccer field."

Davis said that in recent weeks, Eckerd executives had rebuffed his efforts to arrange a "buy-back" of the site. He said company officials informed him Monday that their decision to go ahead and build in Culmore was final. The land is owned by the Zimmer Development Corp. of Wilmington, N.C., which leased it to Eckerd in 1997.

Officials at Zimmer did not return phone calls.

In addition to the $2 million in federal funds Davis had requested--but which had yet to be appropriated--$1 million in state and local money would be needed to acquire the site, Davis estimated. Despite Eckerd's rebuff, "I'm going to keep that $2 million in the pipeline," he said.

Bob Schreiber, head of a civic group called Save the Playing Field at Culmore Action Group, said another reason for preserving the land as a park is its history: President Abraham Lincoln is believed to have stood on or near the site in November 1861 to watch as 75,000 Union troops marched up Leesburg Pike, the largest such troop review in U.S. history, the action group said in a statement.

"We believe this field holds the past, present and future dreams of our community," it said.