Food, glorious food? Fears that only eateries can thrive in Annapolis are unfounded.

August 26, 1996

WILL EVERY Annapolis storefront become a restaurant? The recent influx of restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream stores, carry outs and fast-food outlets is apparently giving other city merchants a scare. They are beginning to wonder if there is a future for retailers who sell goods that aren't edible.

Much of the problem can be traced to the changing nature of the Annapolis consumer. In the past, city residents, state employees, legislators, lobbyists and an occasional tourist were the primary people spending money in local stores. The city's commercial district catered to their needs. But times have changed. Tourists seem now to outnumber all the other groups. And visitors to the state capital have special needs that hardware, clothing, jewelry, antique and appliance stores can't satisfy.

After a morning of exploring the State House, touring the U.S. Naval Academy and wandering through the picturesque historic district, the camera-laden tourist wants food and drink. Entrepreneurs sense that sating the hunger and slaking the thirsts of these visitors hold the promise of quick and generous returns. At present, selling hammers and nails, laundry detergent or designer clothes don't, and landlords recognize that reality. When forced to choose between a long-time, low-turnover business and one that has high gross sales, the landlords will pick the latter.

The real question facing Annapolis' non-food merchants is whether they can survive in this tourist-oriented retail environment. As hungry and thirsty as they may be, tourists also buy other goods. Stores that have catered to residents may have to adjust the mix of merchandise on their shelves. They may have to cater to a niche that other stores are ignoring.

Some merchants may have to rethink whether a downtown location is an appropriate location for their business. In fact, some commercial areas farther from the City Dock -- State Circle and Maryland Avenue come to mind -- seem to be doing quite well with a healthy mix of merchants selling antiques, art, crafts, clothes and books.

Trying to legislate Annapolis' retailing mix would be a terrible mistake. Despite its capricious nature, the marketplace is still the best arbiter of which stores will remain in business.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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