PROFILE: Kensington Mayor promotes small-town charm through locally owned businesses

Peter Fosselman is in a unique position.

He is the mayor of a quaint 2,000-person town, boasting a weekly farmers’ market, a string of village-style glass display cases and antiques shops and quiet streets with large Victorian-era houses with primp lawns and landscaping. All of this happens within a half hour’s drive to the nation’s capital.

Fosselman is the five-year mayor of the Town of Kensington, a 117-year-old town – of 2,213 residents, according to the 2010 Census – literally caught between ever-expanding Montgomery County suburbs, some of which attracted Fosselman to his job.

“The small town feel and the ability to grow with the metropolitan area was a major factor,” said Fosselman, who moved to Montgomery County in the early 1990s. After serving as zoning chair in Gaithersburg from 1996 to 2005, the Fairfax County, Va. native was presented with a new opportunity.

“I had some interest in running for office in the town,” Fosselman said. “And a group of concerned residents actually approached me asking me to run, and saying they were dissatisfied with the way things were going in the town.”

And Fosselman has been mayor practically ever since, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote in Kensington in both his 2006 election and his 2010 re-election. He went unopposed in the 2008 mayoral election.

In both elections, Fosselman ran on the platform of revitalizing business in the small Montgomery County town, which has struggled to attract the kind of commercial activity in surrounding towns like Bethesda and Silver Spring because of its size and quiet demeanor.

Fosselman, who co-owned two businesses, Sweat Shop a fitness center and Café 1894, a restaurant before being elected, said  his experience as a Kensington businessman helped him empathize with the problems the town was facing.

“Those jobs allowed me to work and interact with the people of the town and experience business first-hand,” Fosselman said. “They were a big vehicle for communication.”

The restaurant experience proved especially crucial, when in Octobet of 2007 Fosselman worked to overturn the town’s liquor laws, allowing businesses in Kensington acquire liquor licenses and serve alcohol.

“If you walked through Kensington, you’d find there weren’t many sit-down restaurants, and we felt that was part of the reason,” Fosselman said. “Restaurants are crucial to attracting business and attention to the town.

Currently, the town is in the midst of approving its sector plan, which lays out the community’s vision for the next 20 years. It is the first to be approved in Kensington since 1978. Fosselman’s relationship with businesses has proven integral to the process.

“Pete has been an invaluable asset to Kensington,” Kensington Business District Association President Dennis McCurdy said. “He’s been steady all along. He’s been level-headed and he’s been direct.”

The town approved the plan in February. It now awaits approval from the Montgomery County Council, where it has been amended and revised to fit the unique needs and conditions of Kensington.

The plan hasn’t been without its challenges, as the last year has brought the genesis of a vocal group of concerned residents, spearheaded by Councilwoman Lydia Sullivan, who argue that the plan could disturb the tight-knit suburban identity that defines Kensington, claims that Fosselman and McCurdy both dismissed as misinformation.

“The mayor drops that word ‘misinformation’ a lot,” Sullivan said at an October town council meeting. “And I think it’s ironic considering [information] he sends out contains not only misinformation but disinformation.”

Of what she says is Fosselman’s misleading publicity of the sector plan, Sullivan also said, “everything’s coming up roses.”

However, Fosselman said his development since being elected has helped him handle challenges and disagreements like these.

“My first term, I was definitely a little bit greedy. Impatient definitely,” he said. “I took insults and negative comments personally, but I soon realized that everyone’s out for the good of the town. When I took that step back it helped me better deal with the job.”

The sector plan isn’t expected to see a vote for implementation from the Montgomery County Council until January, and until then, Fosselman said he is not thinking about what the future will hold for him.

“I am not sure,” he said. “I just want to finish with the goals that we have here in Kensington.”