Changes are many down on Main Street In Westminster, new merchants have business booming

January 22, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

It's been a year of change in Westminster's downtown district, and the Main Street business community is looking enthusiastically for more of the same.

While nine of 45 Main Street retail stores between Longwell Avenue and John Street closed or moved elsewhere in 1995, six new merchants replaced them, and commercial real estate agents say quality retail space is at a premium.

In every coffee shop and at every business luncheon recently, the topic of discussion seemed to be the way new merchants are pumping enthusiasm and energy into the Westminster Business Association.

City Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr., a businessman and founder of Greater Westminster Development Corp., likes what he sees.

"If we had to go 100 miles, we're probably at 50 miles," he said. "We've got a vision. Implementing that vision is not always easy, but I'm bullish."

'Very low vacancy rate'

So is James H. Dulany, a real estate appraiser and president of GWDC. "In judging the viability, stability and economic soundness of any community, the first thing to notice is the vacancy rate. We have a very low vacancy rate, almost none," he said.

In one of the most dramatic planned changes, Smith & Reifsnider Lumber Co., in business in Westminster since 1863, will close in March. Westminster Fire Company plans to move to the 3.5-acre property at John and Winters streets.

Mr. Chapin and other business leaders say continued momentum in downtown depends heavily on two key buildings: the vacant Farmers Supply Co. property at Liberty and West Green streets and the fire company building, with its distinctive 1896 clock tower that is Main Street's architectural centerpiece.

Last fall, the City Council halted a plan by Tevis Oil Co. President Stanley H. "Jack" Tevis III to build a convenience store and gas station on the Farmers Supply property. Mr. Tevis now is building a similar business on a vacant lot at West Main and Carroll streets.

The Rite Aid Corp. is considering the 1-acre Farmers Supply Co. site, Othal M. Lester Jr. of Jack Gaughen Realtor in Harrisburg, Pa., said last week.

Carroll County public library officials have toured the fire company building to assess its potential as administrative offices. Scott Reinhart, the library's assistant director, said that while he wouldn't rule out the site, it lacks parking space and would require expensive renovation.

One reason for recent improvements has been improved cooperation among downtown merchants who now are accepting the idea that, "If one does well, we all do well," said Jessica DeCesare, co-chairman of the Westminster Business Association.

The storefront alternative

Ms. DeCesare and her husband, Michael, plan to reopen their Chameleon restaurant in March or April at a new location, 32 W. Main St. The couple closed the restaurant at 140 E. Main St. in October 1994 after they were unable to reach agreement with the landlord on an option to buy the property.

Her assessment of space availability: "I think storefront locations are going to be difficult to find, but there is space in places like Winchester West."

Winchester West is a 53-year-old former J. C. Penney Co. Inc. store at 56 W. Main St. that deteriorated after the store closed in 1990. Max Realty, owned by brothers David and Robert Max, renovated it and opened it for offices and retail uses last fall.

One block east of Winchester West, Johansson's Dining House Inc. bought the building at 4 W. Main St. that housed the family's Champs Restaurant, spent about $250,000 on renovations to the 83-year-old building and changed the name to Johansson's Dining House.

David Johansson, company president, said he wanted more space for the busy restaurant, which had operated in the building basement for eight years, and wanted to get into more upscale dining.

The first-floor restaurant and bar have an English pub theme with, Mr. Johansson said, "the largest selection of microbrews in Carroll County." The restaurant seats 170, the bar 40. The former restaurant and bar downstairs are being renovated for a game room, dance floor and bar and grill with an Australian theme.

Among the smaller businesses, downtown Westminster lost two antiques stores, three interior designers, a shoe store, light fixtures store, hearing aid service and health foods store in 1995. It gained a hair salon, florist, picture framing shop, fishing gear shop, bagel bakery and British and Irish imported goods store.

In a competitive market area, rents inevitably rise, Mr. Dulany noted. "Only the stronger businesses are going to survive. That's just the way it happens," he said.

Small businesses start with the odds against them. Michael G. Fish, Maryland Small Business Development Center representative for Carroll County, uses the rule of thumb that 80 percent of new small businesses will either fold or be absorbed by a larger company within five years of start-up.

Downtown Westminster "has been a real turnaround. It's been doing really well," Mr. Fish said.

More changes coming

The next major change in the face of downtown will be the fire company's move from the building at 66 E. Main St. it has occupied for 100 years.

Bill Miller Jr., president of Smith & Reifsnider, said the general impression that competition from the Lowe's store drove his company out of Westminster is incorrect.

"There weren't really any compelling business reasons for us to sell. The company wasn't for sale. The company was profitable," he said.

Mr. Miller said the decision was prompted by civic and personal reasons. The company's Taneytown store will remain open and six of the 15 Westminster Smith & Reifsnider employees will be transferred.

The fire company had been looking for a downtown site with parking and space for future expansion, said company spokesman Robert P. Cumberland Jr. He said the company needs additional space for its equipment.

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