Shadows of Westminster's agrarian past linger as its old buildings turn into restaurants, shops and offices -- part of the city's transformation from a hub of services for Carroll County farmers into a suburban retail center.
Fast-food and chain restaurants, a full-sized mall and discount stores line Route 140 -- built to bypass Main Street and now so congested that it needs its own bypass.
Downtown, the fortunes of Main Street have risen and fallen as various waves of the highway culture swept outward from Baltimore: Route 140 in the 1950s; the first mall in 1987; Interstate 795; and the discount stores. Some businesses, such as hardware and department stores, were swamped by the competition.
But Main Street's fortunes are on the rise again.
About three years ago, the downtown appeared to be fading into a string of secondhand stores, said Sandy Scott, owner of the Hickory Stick gift shop and president of the resurgent Westminster Business Association.
"That was kind of disturbing," said Scott, who moved her store to Liberty and Green streets three years ago. "We were saying, 'Enough.' "
Since then, the city has pursued almost all of the suggestions in a 1994 strategy for the downtown written by HyettPalma Inc. consultants of Alexandria, Va., said Karen Blandford, Westminster's housing and community development coordinator.
"Now, we're changing," she said, "and this same area is becoming a center of commerce and business and services -- and far less agriculture-dependent."
Foremost of the new developments will be the old Farmers Supply Co. complex one block from Main Street and across from Scott's store. It includes a stone building from the 1880s that was part of the B. F. Shriver Canning Co.
Sites 'key' for district
Westminster's mayor and Common Council are expected to take several votes tomorrow night to allow the project to move ahead.
The historic building had stood empty for seven years -- at one point threatened by demolition -- when the city formed the non-profit Westminster Town Center Corp. to take an option on the property and seek proposals.
The city accepted a $5 million plan by Carroll County Bank & Trust Co. for the 1-acre site, which includes a two-story office building and parking deck, a five-story retail and office tower, and a courtyard next to the stone building -- which is to be renovated.
The site is one of four that the consultants labeled "key" to a healthy central business district. The three other properties are the former J. C. Penney's on West Main Street, the Westminster volunteer fire company building and the post office on East Main Street.
These, and other downtown landmarks, have found new life.
The Penney's building has been renovated into the Winchester West office complex.
The 101-year-old firehouse, whose bell tower serves as the city logo, has been leased for a brew pub, restaurant and sports bar. Excavation for a new fire station began last month on nearby Railroad Avenue.
The U.S. Postal Service hasn't released its building for sale, but the county government is interested, as are several private developers.
Work has begun for the Paradiso Italian restaurant in the historic Glass House, known for its hundreds of panes and once part of the Sherwood Distillery complex.
Coffey Music moved last month into the century-old T. W. Mather & Sons department store, whose closing in fall 1996 left a physical -- and emotional -- gap on East Main Street.
On West Main Street, new upscale restaurants include Chameleon and Johansson's Dining House, which is expanding to include a microbrewery.
"But we still have the vestiges of the past showing in the buildings," said Blandford.
To enhance this history, one city committee has been working on guidelines for facades, signs, awnings and lights downtown. These renovation standards would not be as stringent as those on a historic district -- which was recommended by HyettPalma, she said.
Other developments also put Westminster on the map: Hollywood and the National Football League came to town -- along with thousands of visitors.
Universal Studios' "For Richer or Poorer," filmed in the spring on Westminster's Main Street and at a farm north of the city, opens this month. The Baltimore Ravens signed a five-year deal in March to make their summer training camp at Western Maryland College, including improvements to fields and facilities at the campus in Westminster.
The city plans to follow up HyettPalma's suggestion to recruit more quality stores and restaurants for downtown.
"Good Main Street space doesn't last very long," said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. "If not, you would see vacant buildings, boarded-up buildings." Rents continue to edge up, now ranging from about $10 to $14 per square foot.
As significant as the building renovations, said Blandford, "is the fact that in total we involved 109 different people in our downtown projects."