White elephant in Westminster? Classic fire hall could be cog in downtown revival if potential is realized.

February 20, 1996

THE DECISION by the Carroll County commissioners not to purchase the Westminster fire hall should be seen as a temporary setback but not a defeat of efforts to recycle the structure. As the most architecturally striking building on Main Street in the county seat, it is far from being a white elephant. In the right hands, in fact, the edifice could be the focal point of revitalization for Westminster's commercial district.

Obviously, the Westminster Fire Company is interested in selling the building. It needs the money to finance construction of a new fire hall on 3 1/2 acres that used to house Smith & Reifsnider Lumber Co., a block off Main Street at John and Winters streets. So far, no one is rushing to buy it, even though the fire hall is in the heart of downtown.

The major impediment to finding an alternative use for the fire hall is a lack of vision, particularly from county and town officials. No one at either level of government seems too excited by the possibilities of converting the building to other uses. The county library system quickly rejected the idea of converting it into its headquarters because of the cost and lack of parking. Westminster city officials have shown little interest in it publicly, either.

Unfortunately, neither the county nor the town of Westminster has had a professional architectural and engineering assessment of this landmark. It is possible that renovation costs would be prohibitive for public use but acceptable for certain types of private investment. At this point, no one knows.

Retailers are discovering that not all shoppers are interested in making all their purchases in sprawling malls. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal reported that many national stores -- from Talbott's to Williams-Sonoma -- are now locating on Main Streets in well-to-do small towns. As the center of a growing county with high household incomes, Westminster may be in a position to capitalize on this trend. If so, the fire hall could play a key role.

To recycle the structure, however, a number of challenges must be overcome. They are not insurmountable. Considering the historic nature of the building, the county needs a professional assessment of the property and its limitations. The question deserves greater study than the cursory look it has attracted so far.

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