Traditional downtowns losing favor Exodus to suburbs brings development of shopping malls

October 20, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,SUN STAFF

Many of America's small downtowns are more like ghost towns, ripped of life after decades of suburban sprawl.

But now the same group of people largely responsible for the demise of once-thriving 19th-century downtowns are yearning for their return.

And nowhere is that more evident than in Carroll County, where eight distinct towns are trying to keep from becoming another blur on the suburban landscape that is the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis.

"People are seeking an identity, an identity they feel has been lost," said Howard S. Kohn, president of the Chesapeake Group, a Baltimore consulting firm that has completed a $43,000 survey of Carroll's eight municipalities.

"These same people moved here for the same reasons people live here -- an identity unique and apart from the city and inner suburbs."

That identity has increasingly been one of a ghost town, rather than the quintessential American Main Street where people live, work, bank, shop and worship.

For much of this century -- and the final 50 years of the last -- the center of life in Carroll County was in and around its compact little towns.

Beginning about 30 years ago, however, Carroll County became one of the fastest growing of Baltimore's suburbs, with an influx of people so great that their needs overwhelmed the traditional downtowns and gave birth to a major shopping mall and dozens of smaller strip malls.

Take a stroll through downtown Union Bridge, the smallest of Carroll's towns. The town's one traffic light, at Broadway and Main, could cycle through a half-dozen red lights before a single car passes beneath it. The town's sole restaurant is closed for "renovation" and a once-thriving tourist attraction -- the defunct EnterTRAINment train line -- anchors another deserted section of town.

A dozen miles to the east, Westminster, Carroll's largest municipality, has a Main Street beset by vacant storefronts, complaints of vagrancy and an eclectic mish-mash of retailers purveying everything from tattoos to used records.

"Like the economy everywhere else, downtown has its ups and downs," said Karen B. Blandford, Westminster's housing and community development administrator. "But it's the heart of our community, it's the soul. If you have a dying downtown, it kind of says your whole town is dying."

According to Mr. Kohn's study of the county's Main Streets, less than half of the nearly $831 million in retail sales rung up last year in Carroll was spent in its downtown districts.

Even though they may have been attracted to Carroll by thcharm of Sykesville's riverfront or New Windsor's hilly, Victorian-era Main Street, almost seven of 10 people surveyed by Mr. Kohn's group said they ventured into the county's downtowns less than once a year.

As public officials have found ways to attract people to central Towson, to the shops lining Frederick Road in Catonsville or to Main Street in Ellicott City, Carroll's leaders are looking for a way to attract people -- and dollars -- back to downtown.

"We are trying to really revitalize these older communities, to re-establish their sense of cohesiveness," said Ellen Janes, assistant secretary for neighborhood revitalization with Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ms. Janes heads the state's Main Street Center, and will oversee the $7 million in grants to be doled out by the Neighborhood Business Development Program this year.

"We are trying to attract people back to these communities. Sprawl development is draining the spirit from these communities," she said.

The movement in Carroll mirrors one nationwide in which a wholgeneration of suburbanites who escaped compact urban enclaves are searching for an antidote to the car-friendly culture of cul-de-sacs and superhighways.

"Our downtowns are vital," said Jack Lyburn, the county's economic development director. "We have been able to market them as a special place."

"The new model now is to simply look back to all of civilization until 1950, before it was based on the automobile," said Baltimore land planner David S. Thaler, the region's foremost proponent of the "New Urbanism" movement that has at its core a return to downtown-style living.

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