Area around BWI may get a face lift Beauty is key to luring companies to district, say business, planners

November 16, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A key to attracting companies to the business district around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and adding millions of dollars to the state economy, lies in something simple and superficial, economic development officials believe -- a makeover.

Anne Arundel County planners and the BWI Business Partnership Inc., a marketing and networking group, are developing a proposal to put up better-looking signs and plant more trees to beautify the area of stark roadways and bland office buildings and hotels around the airport.

"It is a perception game," said Steve Donnelly, chairman of the partnership's Vision Committee. "What we're trying to do is establish clearly in the minds of very, very high-quality employers a sense of place for that area. We're doing this for the promotion of the area outside of the immediate Baltimore and Anne Arundel County markets."

The area, which encompasses about 80 square miles around BWI, began developing in the early 1960s when a few business parks went up. Its growth was stymied by the 1980s recession but has surged in this decade.

With 4.5 million square feet of almost fully occupied office space in the area and continuing growth, it is time to establish an identity for the district to market it as a whole, partnership members said.

On a recent drive through the area, Neil M. Shpritz, executive director of the partnership, saw much that he said he wants changed.

On Nursery Road near the Baltimore-Washington Expressway exit, hotels, fast-food restaurants and parking garages have strung up large, vinyl signs with directions on an old, faded fence. On Elkridge Landing Road, other small directional signs dot the roadside, and at Elm Road and Route 170 is a large, blue billboard advertising fast-food restaurants and hotels.

"I happen to think this looks pretty cruddy," Shpritz said. "It looks like some kind of industrial downscale area."

He said the partnership has fielded complaints from people who find it hard to get around because of confusing or inadequate signs.

"They say, 'I see this hotel from the road, but how do I get there from here?' " Shpritz said.

He and Steven R. Cover, director of planning and code enforcement for Anne Arundel County, are studying communities in Bethesda and Northern Virginia that have made similar cosmetic changes to boost business. Apart from putting up more attractive and informative signs, they're also considering adding lampposts and better landscaping along roads.

They will meet this week to decide when and how to lobby County Council members for money for the project. Cover said there is no cost estimate yet, but Bill Benoit, who oversaw the Bethesda Urban Partnership's "Way-Finding" program that put up about 300 signs in the downtown area, said the cost there was $265,000.

Benoit said visitors to Bethesda's downtown area like the new signs.

"The signs alone aren't going to make or break your downtown," he said. "But I looked at a couple of other cities recently and some had cheap signs on four-by-four wooden poles. If they had prettier signs, it would show they were at least interested in taking care of that area."

Cover said he hopes to begin putting up new signs around the airport by the middle of next year. Mitch Weber, president of Heffner and Weber, a company that is developing land in the area, said another option is to start an "Adopt a Road" program that would offer business advertising in exchange for money for tree-planting or signs.

Economic experts say beautification projects might appear frivolous but do make a difference in attracting large firms.

"Aesthetics is very, very key to business location decisions," said Anirban Basu, senior economist at RESI, a Towson University research institute that studies economic development trends. "Part of it is a well-founded belief that environment can affect productivity of workers.

"If you look at major corporations that have located to the region, such as Oracle in Northern Virginia, they have spent tremendous resources creating a campus-like environment that is an attractive and pleasurable place to work," Basu added. "That seems to be the wave right now, for developers and marketers to spend considerable amounts of time and energy and money on items that may be considered nonessential but in fact are very, very important to the economy."

Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, which markets business developments around Washington Dulles International Airport, said its economic area has not been afflicted by haphazard signs partly because of a decades-old Loudon County, Va., ordinance that bars roadside advertising. Half of the Dulles business area is in Loudon.

Officials "decided they were ugly and they just didn't want to have that," Schefer said. "It just may be that an act of [officials years ago] solved the problem before it even cropped up."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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