A batch of empty newspaper and apartment guide boxes sit on Norfolk Avenue, with a tattered Gazette edition from 2007 as the only outward sign the vending machines were ever used.
As residents, business owners and local officials begin a visioning process for the future of downtown Bethesda, one minor but consistent gripe has been the boxes, viewed by many as needless clutter in the age of online publishing and declining print newspaper sales.
“Sometimes we have some stragglers,” said Tim Gibson, distribution director for The Washington Examiner, which closed its local news section in June.
Gibson said his staff picked up about 700 boxes in Maryland and Virginia throughout the summer and that there shouldn’t be any more boxes in Bethesda. We found one on St Elmo Avenue, in a batch of other empty boxes including one from the financially troubled Washington Times.
At the corner of Norfolk and Cordell Avenues is another batch of boxes, one from The Gazette business paper with a lead story titled “How the Deal Fell Apart,” published April 13, 2007. Another Gazette business paper box across from the Lionsgate condominium on Woodmont Avenue features the same edition.
Jean Casey, circulation and marketing director for The Gazette, said the weekly local paper relies on its delivery personnel and residents to call in unused boxes that need to be repaired, replaced or picked up. A freshly stocked Gazette box sits near Veterans Park, just two blocks from the long unused boxes at Norfolk and Cordell.
Casey said a manager will go out Thursday to investigate and make necessary changes.
Responsibility for picking up or repairing unused boxes falls to the publishers of those products. Jeff Burton, deputy executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, said he works with the Washington Post legal staff to coordinate pick-ups or repairs for unused or broken boxes.
A Washington Post spokesperson said the company generally doesn’t keep boxes on the street it isn’t servicing those boxes and will respond if any unused boxes are flagged.
Of equal concern are the various “Apartment Showcase” and other free rental publication boxes that line the streets. Apartment Showcase is a publication of The Washington Post.
During the last monthly meeting of the Woodmont Triangle Action Committee a group of residents, business leaders and county officials brainstormed a list of successes, challenges, opportunities and threats for downtown Bethesda.
Among the ideas were cost-of-living, the perception that it’s hard to park, the lack of recreation space and those empty newspaper boxes.
At an Advisory Board meeting on Monday, Bethesda Urban Partnership Executive Director said he still gets complaints about the boxes. The nonprofit’s board has discussed the issue.
The Partnership is funded by the county to maintain the appearance of downtown Bethesda through landscaping, trash clean-up and other means.
Since his paper downsized, Gibson said his distribution staff has been real careful not to leave any boxes behind.
“When we were a newspaper and had local news, we actually had a great pick-up rate, because we are free. We tracked returns so we didn’t have any problems with boxes being empty or overflowing. That’s how in the past we used to do things,” Gibson said. “It’s just the nature of distribution. Having empty boxes on the street, first off, it’s a cost to us. We can use them in other places. It’s all money.”