The Heart Of Town Needs Place To Beat

COMMENT

November 28, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," Westminster is a city without a heart.

As I drove down a deserted Main Street one evening last week, I thought to myself: "Where is the heart of Westminster?" The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the Carroll County seat has all the ingredients needed to make the town an exciting place to live, work and play, but they aren't in the right places.

Main Street splits Westminster in two, but this pleasant tree-lined street doesn't serve its intended purpose of defining the town's center. With the exception of the library and the post office, none of the town's major civic buildings are located on Main Street.

City Hall is a block away, separated by a wall of buildings and a large expanse of asphalt that serves as the main parking lot for downtown. The county office building is two blocks away, as are the two courthouses. Carroll County General Hospital is about a mile or more from Main Street.

Western Maryland College sits at the extreme end of town, and because it sits on a hill overlooking town, the college seems even more remote than it is.

Belle Grove Square, an inviting oasis of trees, grass and benches, is also a block from Main Street.

The town has clean streets. With a few exceptions, the buildings along Main Street create a pleasant ambience. Even though most of the major retail establishments have fled to outlying shopping centers, a nice variety of stores remains.

The sum of all these elements should be a pleasant and lively small town where people like to congregate. But outside business hours each weekday, people are hard to find downtown.

The purpose of the newly formed Greater Westminster Development Corp. is to revitalize downtown by maintaining existing businesses and attracting new development. To place the entire burden of reviving Westminster on the GWDC is to saddle it with an impossible task.

While Westminster could use some fresh investment, a declining tax base is not the town's major problem. As the retailers have moved to Westminster's outskirts, the town has been able to keep their buildings on the town's tax rolls by annexation.

If Westminster is to maintain itself as the major urban center of the county, it needs more than real estate development. It needs a new kind of town plan. For lack of a better phrase, it needs a "strategic action plan" to provide a framework to bring life back to the town.

Two areas need primary attention -- public spaces and evening and weekend activities.

Westminster needs a comfortable space where people can stroll, sit and leisurely congregate. The nearest equivalent would be a town square that becomes the town's gathering place.

Shopping malls have become the modern surrogates of the old town squares, but they have a different feel. Congregating in a mall takes place within a commercial context. Strolling through park or a plaza is a pure social activity, free of any commercial aspect.

With the exception of the small plaza in front of the Westminster library, there isn't a sizable piece of open space on Main Street where people can meet. As a result, people don't really feel welcome.

Since most of Main Street is built up, and most of the civic buildings that define these public spaces are located away from Main Street, creating this kind of civic space along Westminster's major traffic and pedestrian artery will be difficult. Nevertheless, there is a need for this type of attractive space that will bring people out of their homes.

People also would come downtown after business hours if there were more activities. Special events such as Fallfest and the annual Christmas parade attract throngs of people, but they are not enough.

Westminster needs some night life. A downtown movie theater would be a big addition, as would some restaurants, coffee houses and taverns. These establishments would give people a reason to spend time in the town and put people back on its streets.

Westminster government officials played an important role in forming the Greater Westminster Development Corp., but their efforts to revive Westminster's downtown needn't end. While the GWDC's task is to support existing businesses and attract new ones, the city government has a different role. It should ensure that Westminster continues as the county's primary urban center.

City council members Rebecca Orenstein, Kenneth Yowan, Damian Halstad and Stephen R. Chapin Sr. and Mayor W. Benjamin Brown have spent considerable time working on committees such as the Advisory Task Force on Downtown Renaissance and the planning and organizing groups that created the GWDC. They should be the major participants in defining the town's needs.

Westminster doesn't have to be a ghost town. Unlike many small towns that are losing population and vitality, Westminster is gaining population while losing vitality.

This condition is not terminal, though. With some thought and action, Westminster can re-establish its heart.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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