A post office in historic Ellicott City could become the site for a visitor center if two local civic groups reach an agreement with the U.S. Postal Service.
The Restoration Foundation and Historic Ellicott City Inc. also want to relocate their offices to the basement of the post office at 8267 Main St.
The groups already have come to a tentative agreement with postal officials to lease the basement, but still are discussing who would pay for improvements to the room. The groups' attorney, Roland Bounds, said he expects the deal to be finalized in two or three weeks.
"We're really excited about it," said Gary Maule, president of the Restoration Foundation, a 15-year-old nonprofit revitalization group. "It gives us a place for office space, storage space, and it's in the center of town."
"It gives us both more room and allows us to cut overhead expenses," said Gerald Talbert, president of Historic Ellicott City Inc., a historic preservation group that operates the B&O Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City.
Postal service officials expect no problems with renting the space to the two groups.
"It's not a done, done deal," said Ellicott City Postmaster Marlin Johnson. "They're still fine-tuning some loose ends. We'll be moving right along with it."
Mr. Johnson said it's not unusual to rent a portion of a post office to outside groups. Last year, 1st District Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest used space at the Main Street post office to meet with constituents.
"It's a way to generate revenue," Mr. Johnson said. "One business helps offset the other."
The two groups hope to move into the basement by June and open a visitor center in time for the summer tourist season. The center would offer information on walking tours, restaurants and special events, such as arts fairs. It may be staffed by volunteers, if enough are available.
A center would "make the life of a visitor much easier" by providing information about historic Ellicott City now scattered throughout the town, Mr. Bounds said.
"There are various pieces of literature floating around," Mr. Bounds said. "We'd hope to have all that information so you don't have to run all over town."
Several months ago, the two groups formed a seven-member team to investigate renting the post office basement after learning that it was vacant. The 1,042-square-foot space includes restrooms and is used to store equipment and files. It needs to be repainted and rewired, among other repairs, Mr. Bounds said.
Civic officials say the post office is an ideal spot for their offices and a visitors center because it's in the center of town, near a large parking lot used by many shoppers.
"I think it's an ideal location," Mr. Maule said. "It has access and visibility from the parking lot."
And the gray stone building fits the groups' image: "It's a civic building. It's not a storefront building," Mr. Maule said.
The groups also would be able to use the basement for regular meetings -- an important consideration for the Restoration Foundation, which doesn't have offices and meets at the Thomas Isaac Cabin.
"Right now, the foundation doesn't have permanent space," Mr. Maule said.
Although Historic Ellicott City Inc. has offices, it wants to cut its overhead expenses and use the post office space for storage and for building its exhibits -- all now done at its railroad station museum.