North Odenton develops a new attitude Businesses change along with Fort Meade

February 18, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

The bars, brothels and tattoo parlors that once dominated Boomtown, the Route 175 business strip, have given way to family restaurants, insurance companies and a less colorful moniker, North Odenton.

As Fort Meade has been transformed from troop training post into a military campus and office park, business owners and county planners are talking again about cleaning up Boomtown -- this time by creating a pedestrian-friendly, villagelike cluster of businesses to go along with the changes on the base.

The mile-long business district across from the base still has its share of bars and liquor stores, and a tattoo parlor, but the talk of change might be different this time. County and community leaders have codified talk into the Odenton Town Plan, and they can see the first government office building under construction. Watchers agree that there is new momentum for change.

"Boomtown, Fort Meade, what do you call it? The North Odenton strip is going to transform over the years," said Dwight Flowers, a senior planner with the county planning and zoning department.

The 50 or so businesses occupy a narrow chunk of land between Annapolis Road and the Seven Oaks development, stretching from Route 32 north to Reece Road, not far from the Howard County line. Weed-covered lots and vacant buildings dot the strip, between buildings almost flush with the roadway.

The Boomtown nickname is left from the days when restaurants, penny arcades, tailor shops, barbershops and military supply stores sprang up to meet the demand of young troops at the base during World War II, said Roger White, research director with the Odenton Heritage Society.

The tawdry image stems from the 1950s and 1960s, he said, when bars, liquor stores and pay-by-the-hour motels replaced many of the first establishments.

It was "somewhere a GI could go when he'd been locked up in Fort Meade for about six weeks," said Bill Chewning, who opened a liquor store on the strip more than 30 years ago and now owns a building with 16 tenants and other property there.

But military reorganization has ended the artillery training and troop processing that once were the hallmark of Fort Meade. Today, the largest employer on base is the National Security Agency. The Environmental Protection Agency is constructing a laboratory and office building, and the Defense Information School is constructing a new facility.

Fort Meade officials have designated a 250-acre strip along Route 175, once filled with World War II era wooden barracks and unsightly motor pool areas, a "transition zone," or government office park.

"Fort Meade is the catalyst, the major contributor to the improvement of that area," said Jay Winer, an Odenton developer and one of 11 members of the Odenton Town Plan Oversight Committee, whose goals include revitalizing North Odenton.

The changing mission of the base translates into a changing market for the strip, which now includes real estate and insurance offices, a barbershop and salon and sit-down restaurants.

"Most of our customers here are professionals, not soldiers or GIs getting drunk, getting ready for war," said Sean Blanton, who, with his wife, Lynn, opened a Thai restaurant, Bangkok Kitchen, a year ago.

The Blantons also get diners from nearby Seven Oaks and other neighborhoods. "Before, they didn't want to come to this area to take their families out for a nice quiet meal. Now they do," he said.

Blanton said the remaining bars and liquor stores attract loiterers, and that he would like to see them close and the whole strip transformed into "a nice restaurant district."

Whatever the changing reality, the seedy image of the area persists, said Debra O'Brennan, a broker and manager of Long & Foster Realtors in the 1500 block of Annapolis Road.

But to those who think of the area as nothing more than dirty bookstores, O'Brennan said, "Have you been over there lately?"

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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