Ever since Alberta Street began sprouting coffeehouses and art galleries, there have been rumors that Starbucks was poised to muscle in. Shorthand for quasi-hip and corporate greed, for many small-business owners, Starbucks has become the emblem of commercial development gone awry. Three years ago on April Fools' Day, several signs sporting the coffee giant's logo and "coming soon" were posted on boarded-up buildings along the commercial strip.

A month ago, that rumor once again reared its head when storeowners began to hear stories that Starbucks was looking to rent a space in the heart of Alberta. Even though the rumors turned out to be untrue, this time local merchants sprung into action, hoping to set the course for their quaint neighborhood and, namely, to stonewall the inclusion of out-of-town corporations in their commercial nirvana.

On Sunday evening, about 40 people crammed into Groundswell, a salon-like coffeehouse on Alberta and NE 17th. What followed was a polite but surprisingly diverse discussion about commercial development. Largely directed by Harriet Fasenfest, the owner of Groundswell, the conversation veered to ways business owners could control the fate of their neighborhood. Setting the tone for the evening, Fasenfest talked about the vital interface between commercial development and the tenor of a residential area.

One of the first speakers of the evening was a representative from the Elliot Neighborhood Association, a group that halted a McDonald's from taking over an abandoned building along MLK Blvd. After a survey of residents found that four out of five opposed the fast-food chain, a small committee took their concerns to the city and slowed the permitting process. In spite of their success, though, the representative from Elliot cautioned, "you really need to know what the community wants."

That goal--surveying a cross-section of residents and business-owners--was one of the tangible goals identified during the evening. But given Sunday night's meeting, the results from such a survey may be surprising.

One resident--the only African American in attendance--raised the point that McDonald's is a much different presence than Starbucks, that McDonald's generates car traffic and litter. As long as Starbucks is clean and not a home to drug-dealers, a business should be welcome, he said. "The issue should be 'livability.'" As long as "it is a business that is willing to work with the community and blend in," the man indicated it should be okay.

The man went on to hint at some of the unstated irony of the evening: Most business owners along Alberta have only been there for three years or less, yet are already expressing a sense of ownership that borders on exclusivity. "To that black barbershop that has been in business for years," the man said, talking about a shop that has been on Alberta for decades, "[Groundswell] may have been a Starbucks."

For more information about future meetings, contact Fasenfest at 331-1420.