Upbeat about Main St. Charm: Carroll County's small communities boast downtowns that are being studied as models for development as far away as Australia.

June 05, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Singapore wants a Main Street. Developers in Baltimore County spent millions building one. And a delegation from Australia recently traveled 9,803 miles to Carroll County for a chance to see real small-town charm on some of its main streets.

As localities near and far try to capture that charm, Westminster, Taneytown and the county's other towns are seen as models for an era of small shops, shady sidewalks and welcoming smiles.

State officials also have taken notice of the towns by touting them as the "Main Street Loop" on the state's scenic byways map.

"I like to think we were chosen because we have the best main streets in the state," said Barbara J. Beverungen, tourism administrator for Carroll County.

"We have what everyone else is trying to create. And we've been smart enough to preserve it."

About 6,000 people visit Westminster's Main Street each year, flocking to 19th-century buildings that have been transformed into specialty shops and trendy restaurants.

"We've been able to keep our downtown area vital by recycling our older buildings," said R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp., the city's nonprofit business community partner.

One of downtown's signature buildings, the century-old T. W. Mather & Sons store at 31 E. Main St., recently got a new look and a new owner.

With help from the state -- a low-interest $325,000 loan -- Robert M. Coffey renovated the two-story building from top to bottom. He put in new floors, a new electrical system and new lighting.

"This is the only way to keep Main Street thriving," Coffey said of the $650,000 renovation project. "If you don't recycle the older buildings, the area will turn into a ghost town."

It's a fate that many Main Street shop owners are working hard to avoid.

Harry Sirinakis, the third-generation owner of Harry's Main Street, recently received a $212,000 loan through the state's Neighborhood Business Development Program.

The money will help Sirinakis finance a $540,000 expansion of his West Main Street restaurant. The eatery is well known for its chili dogs, which some Baltimore Ravens ate by the dozen during summer training camp at Western Maryland College.

"We could have gone somewhere else, but we didn't want to. That's why we've invested in this site," Sirinakis said. "Downtown is making a comeback, and we want to be part of it."

Business owners in Westminster are uniting to market Main Street as a tourist destination. They're publishing a "Main Street" brochure, planting flowers and asking the city to add more Victorian-style street lamps.

Similar efforts are under way in Carroll's other incorporated towns.

In Hampstead, business owners are improving aging signs and fading facades. In Sykesville, they've converted a historic train station into a restaurant and renovated other older buildings.

And in Taneytown, the local economic development group has been working to clean up its main street, persuade commercial property owners to spruce up their storefronts and lure new businesses to downtown.

"We're working hard to preserve our sense of community," said David Fitzgerald, owner of Spanky's, the Taneytown cafe that welcomes visitors with photos of Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and James Dean. "I've got people in their 60s and 70s coming in, people who used to shop here back in the 1950s, when it was a bakery."

Developers everywhere are trying to come up with innovative ways to create neighborhoods that offer the communal spirit of Carroll County's towns.

"Although Main Street is primarily an American concept, we get calls from Britain, Canada and even Singapore," said Mac Nichols, senior program manager for the National Main Street Center in Washington, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The increasing popularity of a main street where people can walk, drive and even park is a backlash against that icon of suburbia -- the mall -- and the result of "America's schizophrenic psyche," said Elliott Sclar, an urban planning and economics professor at Columbia University in New York.

"Every American at some level thinks it's his God-given right to park right in front of where he's going," Sclar said. "But on the other hand, we long to walk down the street and meet our neighbors and friends. We long for a cohesive community, a pedestrian lifestyle.

"To meet the demands of the market, developers are attempting to re-create architectural nostalgia," Sclar said. "This is 42nd Street in New York, with its Brooklyn Diner and wax museum.

"It's Rouse's Harborplace in Baltimore, which builds on the history of that city. It's even Camden Yards, where they built a modern ballpark that evoked the architecture of an older time."

And it's White Marsh, where architects created "the Avenue," a $45 million street designed to look like a Maryland village, with buildings resembling a fire station, a mill, a city hall and a hardware store.

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