Downtown businesses fret about Main Street project

March 28, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

Today's groundbreaking ceremony for the Main Street reconstruction project is expected to be colorful and loud with its singing fifth-graders and historians snapping photographs. The mayor will even get a commemorative brick.

But many downtown workers and residents say they have no reason to celebrate the rebricking project in the heart of the city's historic district.

"This will kill us," said Monica Nader, manager of Cafe Normandie at 185 Main St. "We are definitely going to lose business."

The first phase of construction targets the lower section of Main Street, from Conduit Street to Market Space. Work crews will bury utility lines and rebrick the sidewalk and roadway.

No cars will be allowed on this part of the street until at least Aug. 1, city officials said.

The upper half of Main Street, from Church Circle to Conduit Street, will be rebuilt during the second phase. City planners say the entire project should take eight months, assuming the work crews do not run into any problems or bad weather.

Though workers won't start tearing up large chunks of the street until next week, signs of change were evident on Main Street yesterday. Construction workers spray painted bricks and surveyed the roadway. The newest fixture on the centuries-old street was a sign that read ROAD CLOSED.

Already utility trucks are parked steps from Cafe Normandie's front door. Ms. Nader is worried that the traffic delays, loss of parking and general mess downtown will drive away the summer tourists who make up 80 percent of her business on the normally bustling street.

Nevertheless, she and other downtown merchants are looking for inventive ways to lure customers downtown. Cafe Normandie has hired a Washington-based consultant to explore marketing strategies for the French restaurant, such as selling take-out filet mignon and offering early-bird specials.

Even though merchants have tried to remain optimistic, at least six stores on Main Street have closed or moved. Several others are expected to vacate in the coming weeks. There are about 70 businesses on the street.

While many merchants are bracing themselves for a major disruption in business, some people on Main Street yesterday didn't seem to care about the arrival of the construction crews and the heavy machinery.

French tourists nibbling on fudge inside A. L. Goodie's near the foot of Main Street didn't seem to notice the commotion. Schoolgirls in sunglasses were too busy talking to each other to pay any mind to the utility trucks outside Chick & Ruth's Delly. A state legislator eating a fried chicken lunch by City Dock said the roadwork didn't affect him much at all because he never drives in Annapolis.

Still, merchants have been preparing for the worst. Bob Lawinger, who owns Lennon's Fudge at 112 Main St., has saved money the past 1 1/2 year in a special "Main Street Fund," skimping on vacations and birthdays so that his family will have extra savings to carry it through the coming months.

Meanwhile, the city is looking for ways to keep downtown from suffering as much as it did five years ago during the reconstruction of State Circle.

The Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce will offer discounts and prizes to downtown shoppers. Parking rates at city-owned garages downtown will be slashed and the city will improve shuttle services from parking areas outside downtown to Main Street and the historic district.

The city also is offering a guaranteed loan program that will let struggling Main Street businesses borrow up to $5,000 to pay their bills and stay in business.

Shopkeepers say the best way to survive is to think creatively and not overlook the potential market in crews working on Main Street.

"Who knows, maybe I can get [them] to fall in love with my cookies," Mr. Lawinger said.

"I'm going to start selling coffee and maybe some breakfast food because I think they like that stuff."

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