The texts started popping up earlier this week on the phones of people who live near the northeast Baltimore spot where a decade-long war has been waged over a proposed Royal Farms gas station and convenience store.
“Hey, it’s Andy Pierre from Westfield and Harford Rd. Have you heard that they are still trying to build a Royal Farms gas station on the empty lot across from the library?” the text begins, providing a link to a survey to give feedback to “decision-makers.”
The survey turns out to be a classic “push poll,” replete with questions designed to “push” the company’s talking points:
Saying the gas station “is expected to create 30-40 new jobs,” the survey asks, “do you consider this a valuable contribution to your local economy?”
Another asks about the importance of enhancing “the aesthetics of currently unused land within you neighborhood through the development of green spaces and landscaping, as proposed by Royal Farms?”
Longtime RoFo opponent Jane Backert, who lives a few blocks from the project site, took the survey and gave her sincere, and very negative, answers.
But when she got to the last question, asking if she planned to attend a December 5 Zoning Board hearing on the case, her survey answers appeared to have been rejected:
“There was a problem with your submission. Errors are marked below. You have already submitted that form.”
“If people say ‘no’ or give certain answers the survey doesn’t like, it just kicks you off,” complained Backert. “It’s not a real survey – they just want to find people who are pro RoFo.”
Social media sites and phone lines were abuzz this week as dozens of residents in the Hamilton area and nearby shared similar experiences with the survey.
Several denounced it as part of a corporate “astroturf” campaign, while others outed Pierre as a hired public relations consultant.
Third District Councilman Ryan Dorsey chimed in on social media, too, declaring the convenience store chain’s project and poll “an insult to a community’s potential.”
“This thing is 100% skewed and biased,” Lisa Daniels told The Brew after getting the error message. “It shows the depths they will sink to to get their way.”
Free Pick-Up for Proponents
But not everyone was getting the error message.
What happened when a respondent expressed positive opinions about the project and said they would like to testify in favor of it before the Zoning Board?
“It’s asking me if I’d like a ride,” marveled longtime Westfield leader Angela Jancius, testing out that scenario as she spoke on the phone with The Brew.
“I answered ‘no,’ but it’s still asking me where I need to be picked up from.”
The Brew tried the positive approach on the survey earlier in the week and was likewise asked to reach out by email to discuss transportation to the meeting.
“We’ll have chicken!”
Pierre, CEO of Fox & Lion Communications, a Baltimore-based public relations firm, explained that he’d been hired by Royal Farms’ corporate parent, Two Farms Inc., to provide the public with accurate information about the project ahead of the December 5 meeting and vote.
“I’m a real person!” Pierre exclaimed when reached by The Brew.
His company, which has done political work for former state Delegate Talmadge Branch and 7th District Congressional Republican nominee Kimberly Klacik, created a hamiltonrofo.com website with links to the survey, as well as a petition and a schedule of the online and in-person information sessions he is organizing.
In addition to featuring traffic experts, lawyers and company representatives, the December 2 event at the Hamilton branch of the Enoch Pratt Library will offer refreshments, Pierre confirmed.
“Oh, yes, we’ll have RoFo chicken!” he said, referencing the convenience store chain’s signature batter-fried product. “It wouldn’t do to just have sandwiches or something!”
Pierre defended the survey, saying the error messages are just a glitch.
“I’ve been troubleshooting the problem, looking at the software,” he said, asserting that “all of the responses are being counted . . . There’s no reason not to log the negative responses.”
Asked if the survey was pushing a point of view, Pierre acknowledged it was, but argued the opponent group, NoRoFo Hamilton, had been biased in the other direction.
“When NoRoFo rolled out their message against Royal Farms, it was tilted and didn’t highlight the benefits,” Pierre said. “We’re within our rights to do this.”
The grassroots citizen group’s organizers, who have held roadside protests and petition drives and crowdsourced funds to pay a lawyer, have argued for years that the gas station would generate dangerous traffic congestion at an already hazardous five-way intersection near an elementary school and library branch.
Pierre said his information sessions would counter that argument. While not likely changing the minds of hardcore opponents, he said the sessions will serve to “inform the new people.”
28,000 Households Targeted
For the Hamilton RoFo foes, however, the website, survey and texts he created have been a source of fascination.
How did Fox & Lion get the phone numbers of area residents?
“Well, I ran for office once,” Pierre said, referring to his unsuccessful 2018 run for a 45th District House of Delegates seat and suggesting he obtained 27th ward phone lists that way.
And who is receiving his pro-RoFo texts?
“We’ve got a digital fence targeting 28,000 households in an area that includes Hamilton, Hamilton Hills, Rosemont, Rosemont East, Westfield and Waltherson,” he said, adding that the texting zone goes “from Northern Parkway down to Echodale and out to Belair Road.”.
Pierre himself drew attention this week because of his initial texts that didn’t identify him as a paid communications strategist, but instead implied that he is an area resident.
“I am from the neighborhood. I do want a Royal Farms in the neighborhood,” he told The Brew, explaining that he lives on Westfield Avenue, which is north of the project site at 5901-21 Harford Road.
Pressed for more details, Pierre said he doesn’t own a home there, but has rented a place in that location “for a year and some change.”
“I am from the neighborhood, I do want a Royal Farms” – Fox & Lion Communications CEO Andy Pierre.
Julie Dumps said she was so confused by her text conversation with Pierre that she figured he was just an interested resident and invited him to the monthly meeting of the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association, one of the community groups that has been fighting the project.
Pierre showed up Tuesday night and identified himself, after his campaign was mentioned, as the person conducting it under contract with Royal Farms.
He found himself facing a tough crowd. When he mentioned the possibility of hiring a bus to take people downtown for the Zoning Board meeting, Dumps asked him a pointed question:
“Will you take the people who oppose it?”
Unveiled in 2012, the plan originally called for a 24-hour gas station and convenience store featuring seven fueling stations, each with two pumps, and 74 parking spaces.
It was denounced by critics as a “mega Royal Farms” more suitable for an interstate highway. Opponents say they have been unable to get good information about the company’s scale-back of the original design that has emerged in recent months.
Pierre said the current proposal is much reduced, with four fueling stations (“so eight actual hoses”), a 4,166 square-foot store, and 39 parking spaces. Asked the lot size, he said it is 1.7 acres.
Thanks to street configuration changes by the city, “I can get to the library now without feeling like I’m on death row. A gas station would undo that” – Resident Jane Backert.
“It’s still going to cause a traffic nightmare with people turning in and out and cars getting backed up,” said Jancius, pointing to recent changes in the road configuration she said would exacerbate the project’s impact.
The company, which has 240 stores in Maryland and a half dozen other states, is expected to describe its current proposal as safely designed, a boon to the community and an improvement over the long-vacant lot.
During a decade of legal twists and turns in a case last heard by the Zoning Board in 2015, staunch opponent Jane Backert has followed these arguments closely and plans to attend next month’s hearing.
The 68-year-old, who has used a scooter at times and also walking poles to get around, says she likes the changes the city has made to slow traffic there.
“It’s so nice. I can get across the street to the library now without feeling like I’m on death row,” she said. “A gas station would undo everything good that the city did.”