City seeks opinions on downtown

August 01, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

If someone calls your home this week and asks your opinion of downtown Westminster, it's not a marketing company trying to sell you something.

It's the city calling, looking for data to help an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm prepare a strategic plan to revitalize downtown Westminster, said Karen Blandford, administrator of the city office of Housing and Community Development.

"This will be an action plan, not a dusty survey that sits on a shelf," Ms. Blandford said of the project to be completed by HyettPalma Inc. in late September. "It will detail who does what, when."

The project, paid for with a $17,000 state grant and $5,000 from the city, was conceived by Maryland's Main Street Center, a state program that supports the revitalization of downtown areas, Ms. Blandford said.

Westminster, the first Maryland municipality to participate in a HyettPalma analysis and "economic enhancement" survey, was chosen as a test. If the project is successful, the state may use HyettPalma for surveys in other towns and cities, Ms. Blandford said.

"The state approached us about it," she said. "They chose Westminster because the time is right."

State officials were impressed that the city has formed the Greater Westminster Development Corp., an economic development group working for all of Westminster, and that there was civic and council interest in revitalizing downtown, Ms. Blandford said.

"The city had a major revitalization push in the late '70s where they did a lot of innovative things," she said. "It appeared to the state that we were about to have another big push and take a comprehensive look at downtown."

The project has been divided into three phases, Ms. Blandford said. In the first, city officials and volunteers will gather data for the company, including a survey of downtown Westminster businesses, a residential survey of potential customers and various maps of the area.

HyettPalma has also asked for information about the number of downtown employees and annual visitors, how many apartments are in the study area and regulations pertaining to downtown.

"Everything will be done from an economic point of view," Ms. Blandford said. "They will be telling us how to increase our market share."

For the purposes of the survey, downtown Westminster is considered the area from Anchor Street on the north to Ralph Street on the south, and Winters Street on the east to Green Street on the west.

The survey boundaries jut out slightly to include Schaefer

Lumber, Ain't That a Frame and the Caspian Soccer Pro Shop along Green Street; Baumgardner's at Railroad Avenue and Winters Street; and Smith and Reifsnider on John Street, Ms. Blandford said.

"[We] felt that they consider themselves part of the downtown community," she said.

All businesses and professional offices will have questionnaires -- asking about monthly rent, age of business, number of employees and characteristics of downtown Westminster -- delivered by the middle of next week, Ms. Blandford said.

The survey will be collected about a week later, she said.

"We're not trying to pry," Ms. Blandford said, adding that the results will be compiled and released only to HyettPalma. "We're just trying to get a solid base on which some recommendations can be made."

Because the study will give block-by-block recommendations focusing on stores, the city is hoping to have 100 percent participation from retail establishments and 50 percent from other businesses, she said.

During the residential survey, 22 volunteers will call 200 people from the central part of Carroll County from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Ms. Blandford said. The area's boundaries are the Maryland state line, Route 30, Route 26, Francis Scott Key Highway and the county borders that connect them.

Residents will be asked how often they visit downtown, for what purposes and what could be done to improve the shopping district. HyettPalma's consultants have suggested the group contact every 150th person listed in the local phone book, Ms. Blandford said.

The survey will take about 15 minutes.

"We're going to do exactly what the consultants tell us to do," Ms. Blandford said. "We're going on faith with their methodology. But it has worked all over the country."

Former HyettPalma clients include Houston; Atlanta; Bronxville, N.Y.; and Albuquerque, N.M., she said.

The final phase will be a three-day information-gathering trip by HyettPalma consultants in September, Ms. Blandford said.

Consultants will conduct a community vision session from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Westminster Volunteer Fire Company during which they will gather comments from business owners, downtown Westminster residents and anyone who has an opinion about shopping downtown, she said.

"This could be anybody," Ms. Blandford said. "We were given instructions that the more people, the better."

Consultants will also meet with city officials and a retail focus group consisting of typical repeat retail customers, whose names have been provided by downtown merchants.

HyettPalma will study the information and create a step-by-step timetable to revitalize Westminster's downtown area, Ms. Blandford said.

"In their language, HyettPalma and the community will have co-authored the plan," she said. "I'm truly hoping that this will be much easier to implement because it will be us, not an outsider telling us what to do.

"It will focus on what we want as a community."

For information, call 848-2261 or 876-6322.

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