Take a stroll up Annapolis' Main Street for a little window shopping, and you're liable to see nothing but your own reflection in some of those windows.
A growing number of shops along the street are empty of all but "For Lease" signs these days. In the past three months, Britches for Women went out of business, the Ralph Lauren Polo shop closed and several boutiques moved off Main Street.
"I have never seen so many empty stores up Main Street in the 15 years we've been doing business here," said Wick Tourison, who moved his jewelry store, The Tiger's Eye, to West Annapolis last month after 12 years on Main Street.
At the same time Mr. Tourison and his wife, Ping, left, their Main Street neighbor, The Irish Center, moved to a nearby side street. Four doors down from the two empty boutiques stands the old Lipman's building, still half vacant a year after the clothier went out of business.
Lipman's closed last February after 86 years on the street. Nine other stores between Church Circle and the harbor have followed suit. And another half-dozen are vacant in the first block of West Street.
Merchants complain that the few locally owned businesses left in downtown Annapolis are being forced out by high rents, parking problems and the competition from national chains.
City officials and real estate brokers counter that the empty spaces are a sign of businesses in transition, not of a troubled downtown.
Lynn Dulin, senior commercial consultant with Champion Realty, said many mom and pop businesses left because the owners retired or failed to keep up with changing consumer demands. Nevertheless, owners occupy about a third of Main Street buildings, she said. And she's working with several potential tenants looking at locations there.
"I keep hearing, 'Gee, there have never been more vacancies.' That's not true," said Ms. Dulin, who remembers the 1960s, when half the shops were empty.
Even though the city recently opened a second garage in the historic district, many business owners complain about parking. Shoppers often refuse to park in the garages and look for curbside spots, they say.
Mary Burkholder, the city's director of economic development, calls it a "perception problem." Once the city installs signs for the two garages and a visitors center opens in the first block of West Street, things will improve, she said.
Although they complain about parking, the merchants' biggest gripe is the rents on Main Street and Inner West Street, which have not dropped significantly, despite the recession.
"If you're going to pay $38,000 a year for an 800-square-foot space, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you're going to need a big volume of business," said Richard Dunne, owner of The Irish Center. "That kind of volume hasn't been there in the last three years."
Hurt by the sluggish economy and unable to negotiate a lower rent, Mr. Dunne and his wife moved their shop to nearby Green Street. His story is one that has been replayed frequently since the tourist boom transformed the city 15 years ago.
Fierce competition for commercial space in the early 1980s drove up the rents from less than $10 a square foot to a high of $50. By 1988, chain stores and upscale restaurants had replaced many of the smaller businesses that could no longer afford space near City Dock.
While Britches for Women and the Ralph Lauren Polo shop closed because of changes in corporate policy, another women's clothing chain, The Lodge, plans to move into the Britches space, Ms. Burkholder said.
The Gap, Laura Ashley and Banana Republic remain, surrounded by pubs and T-shirt shops. Meanwhile, city officials have had inquiries from 35 coffeehouse owners in recent months, and at least three have started the permit process, said Michael Mallinoff, city administrator. An art gallery with a cappuccino bar is opening next to Fran O'Brien's, he said. And a coffeehouse has leased space at the corner of Randall and Prince George streets, next to a frozen yogurt shop that be
came the center of controversy last summer over the future of the city.
That debate has been rekindled by the empty shops on Main and Inner West streets. Business leaders and residents say the city must lure back one-of-a-kind shops to preserve the balance of restaurants, tourist spots, clothing stores and galleries.
"I think we're in the middle of a transition. To me, the real question is where are we going?" said Craig Purcell, a downtown resident and architect, who wants to see more local businesses in his neighborhood instead of another T-shirt shop.
"For the last six or seven years, the attrition rate of the older businesses has been horrible," complained Larry Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing at the top of Main
Street and a likely Republican candidate for mayor. "We want to keep locally owned and operated businesses, yet the government is not doing anything about this,` he said.