Flourishing Frederick Growth: The city is one of the state's fastest- growing and has succeeded more than most in keeping its downtown healthy.

December 02, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Thirty years ago, this city was on the brink of an urban abyss. Merchants were fleeing to outlying shopping centers, and plywood covered the windows of vacant 18th-century rowhouses.

The hotel closed. The Elks Club burned down. Frederick County officials considered moving the courthouse from the city.

Today, buoyed by the tenacity of its residents and the pro-development stance of its politicians, Frederick is the state's second-largest incorporated city -- and one of the fastest-growing.

Its lively downtown boasts theaters, restaurants, clothing and antiques stores, barbershops, law offices and accounting firms. Property values have skyrocketed. A new baseball stadium sits on the edge of town. And the city is about to embark on a number of ambitious economic development projects that promise to generate thousands of jobs.

"We don't want to be the largest city," said Mayor James S. Grimes. "Just the best."

While many Americans today are just beginning to rediscover the charms of Main Street, Frederick residents long ago realized their city was worth fighting for.

Starting in the early 1970s, they formed committees, planted trees, pestered business owners to fix up their stores, elected new leaders and endured property tax increases to reclaim the downtown section.

"We reversed the trend there and proved it could be done," said Ronald N. Young, the former mayor credited with much of Frederick's success.

Young today is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's point man on the Smart Growth initiative and frequently uses Frederick as an example of how cities can be saved from suburban sprawl.

Although it still struggles to foster commercial development, fight school crowding and encourage homeownership among its poorer residents, Frederick has been more successful than most in keeping its downtown healthy.

Established in 1745 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Frederick flourished as a trade stop for pioneers traveling west in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now the city equidistant from Baltimore and Washington is becoming a destination in itself.

MedImmune, a biotechnology company, recently built a drug manufacturing plant in Frederick, and State Farm Insurance Co. has expanded its regional headquarters. Commercial vacancy rates are less than 10 percent. Unemployment is less than 5 percent.

"We have what people are copying," said Dick Kessler, owner of King's Men's Wear on South Market Street.

"It's a forward-thinking town," said Connie Martin, who moved from Pennsylvania to Frederick 15 years ago and lives in a 100-year-old rowhouse. "Frederick has all the amenities of a city as well as proximity to everything, but you can't walk downtown without running into someone you want to talk to."

Climbing population

Recent census figures show that Frederick, with 46,227 people, surpassed Rockville last year as the state's largest incorporated city after Baltimore -- a measure of its comeback.

"Back in the 1970s, new shopping centers were being built, and downtown became a disaster area," said Donald C. Linton, an accountant who has worked in the city for more than 30 years. "Stores were boarded up and property values went down."

But Linton and others rallied, pressing the Chamber of Commerce and local leaders to change. In 1973, five new aldermen and a new mayor were elected.

"The first thing you need to do is clean up and deal with the aesthetics," said Young, who was elected mayor. "If a city doesn't take pride in itself, what does it do for the residents?"

In 1974, residents formed Operation Town Action, planting trees and pressing downtown property owners to restore buildings. Eventually more than 1,000 trees were planted, streets were cleaned, overhead power lines buried and parking garages built. The lot left vacant by the Elks Club was turned into a park.

Young said the revitalization wasn't cheap: The property tax rate went up 5 cents his first year in office. "We spent a lot of money," he said.

But over time, property values also rose. Houses valued at $20,000 in 1974 can sell for more than $200,000 today. With an increase in property assessments, Young was able to cut the property tax rate six times.

The city also expanded its borders in a series of ambitious annexations that added thousands of acres. A baseball stadium was built to house the minor league Frederick Keys team. The airport was expanded.

"Had we not had visionary leadership, it could have gone the other way," said Bert Anderson, who redeveloped an old factory and rundown residential district into shops and restaurants. "Very early on the danger was recognized."

The city suffered setbacks. In 1976, an October rainstorm turned tiny, polluted Carroll Creek, which runs through the center of town, into a torrent.

Kessler's store was mired in 2 feet of water and mud. "We would never have thought it would have occurred here," Kessler said.

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