How Westminster Can Pick Itself Up


September 26, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM | BRIAN SULLAM,Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Merchants along Westminster's Main Street are in a funk.

Many of them feel as though an unseen enemy is picking them off one by one.

Just about every month, another business succumbs or moves out of the downtown. The latest casualty is Cockey's Tavern, a veritable Westminster institution which closed abruptly three weeks ago.

Another business, The Yarn Barn, has operated out a storefront across from the library for the past decade and has been downtown for 16 years. But its presence downtown also ended this weekend. It moved to a new location with more reasonable rent, the owner said, on Old Westminster Pike on the other side of Route 97.

Last spring, Wendy's Collectibles, on the corner of Longwell and Main streets, closed its doors even though it appeared to have carved a successful niche by offering a Victorian tea -- featuring dainty cakes and sandwiches and a "bottomless" cup of tea -- every afternoon along with the shop's extensive collection of knickknacks.

If you go back far enough, you can recount other Main Street businesses that have moved or failed, including J. C. Penney's, the Farmers Supply Co. and Bea's Restaurant.

But while the prognosis for Westminster's business district may not seem promising, don't start the funeral dirges just yet.

Westminster's business and retail district possesses a charm and character that is sorely lacking in the outlying shopping centers.

The sidewalks are tree-lined and well-swept. The buildings have a turn-of-the-century character. And there is a wide variety of shops, restaurants and professional offices that provide the town with an identity much different than that found on Route 140.

Despite at least three vacant storefronts on the block across from the library, Main Street retains a mix of retail businesses that many mall managers would covet. In that block, a shopper could cash a check at Westminster Bank and Trust, fill a prescription at Schmitt's Drugs, get shoes reheeled at Towne Shoe Repair, buy a model kit at Bobby's Hobby Lobby, purchase a best-seller from Locust Books or grab a meatball submarine at La Strada. Further west on Main Street, a shopper could eat a burger at Champs, down a beer at Ernie's and buy a tropical fish or iguana at Savage's Aquarium Supply.

As for downtown parking, it is a problem that is overblown.

I work downtown and rarely have trouble finding a free space. Sometimes I can't pull right into a vacant space, but I have never had to drive around for more than a minute or two before finding one.

On the rare occasion when I have been forced to pay for metered parking, I always felt it was the bargain of the decade. Where else can you get 60 minutes of parking for a dime? Even better, the meters on Main Street don't have to be fed after 3 p.m.

That is not to say that Main Street doesn't have problems that need fixing. In short, Main Street needs more customers to survive.

Westminster's layout, plus a quarter-century of suburban sprawl, have conspired to repel many customers. Even though the Carroll County seat is a major employment center, proportionately very few workers from the city's large employers such as the county government, Carroll County General Hospital, Random House and Western Maryland College patronize downtown retailers.

Most of these employers are, unfortunately, located outside the city's center. Once these workers get in their cars to run a noontime errand or grab lunch, they can drive to the shopping centers just as easily as they can downtown.

Even the layout of Westminster conspires against the downtown merchants. Even though the complex of county government buildings on Center and Court streets houses hundreds of potential consumers no more than a five-minute walk from Main Street, the buildings in which they work have no physical relationship to downtown. So, county workers aren't as inclined to frequent downtown businesses as they might be otherwise.

The Westminster City Council seems to recognize that the downtown business community is in desperate straits.

Councilmen Damian Halstad and Stephen Chapin have revived a 1990 proposal to create a non-profit marketing and development board to promote the downtown retail district.

Creating such an organization would be a step in the right direction, but it will not improve Westminster's business climate unless some serious planning is done, there is an agreement on the plan and sufficient resources are devoted to carrying it out.

Given the fact that downtown merchants can't seem to agree on street closings for special events such as the spring Flower and Jazz Festival, developing a communal solution to the area's business woes may be difficult.

Fallfest '93, Westminster's four-day celebration to usher in autumn, wraps up today. It was originally conceived as a low-budget affair to attract shoppers downtown, but the event has expanded into a successful, yearly conglomeration of parades, games, rides and food that attracts thousands.

Westminster's merchants and political leaders must use the same ingenuity to ensure that these people venture to Main Street the other 361 days of the year.

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