Commercial strips get new lease on life Suburban corridors rebound by attracting stores and shoppers

'Heart of ... community'

Revitalization helps boost sites vital to older neighborhoods

November 30, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Looking for a bargain on holiday wrapping paper, Desiree Bialek and her boyfriend, Tom Starks, made a beeline for the Rite Aid in Dundalk Village Shopping Center a couple blocks from her home.

"It's so friendly," she said of the 80-year-old brick shopping center overlooking the town park. "You can get a breeze and you're not stuck inside like in a mall."

Throughout Baltimore's suburbs, shoppers like Bialek and Starks are pumping dollars into suburban commercial strips in the heart of communities such as Dundalk, Catonsville and Pikesville. It's a startling revival for corridors that once bustled with moviegoers, diners and shoppers, but were sapped of business by competition from shopping centers, malls and warehouse-style stores.

Thanks to a healthy economy and an infusion of public and private dollars, commercial strips around the Beltway are rebounding.

In Towson, the long-vacant Hutzler's building has been leased to Barnes & Noble Booksellers and other businesses. In Pikesville, DiPasquale's Italian Market is set to open in the old Pikes Theater. In Randallstown, the dilapidated Liberty Court Shopping Center is being renovated.

Farther south, the long-awaited revival of downtown Glen Burnie begins next month with the construction of shops, a plaza and an ice-skating rink.

At Dundalk Village Shopping Center, vacancy rates have dropped from 60 percent two years ago to about 5 percent, said Curtis Campbell, an owner of the center's management company. "It's a very positive thing for Dundalk. In the heart of this community things aren't as bad as they may seem," he said.

Added James S. Leanos, a vice president of Casey & Associates Inc.: "I'm a big optimist about existing communities."

Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and the state have tried for years to revive older commercial strips, investing millions to repair aging sidewalks, alleys and sewer systems, to beautify streets and to provide low-interest business loans and tax credits.

"These seeds take several years to germinate," said Baltimore County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat who represents the Pikesville-Randallstown area. "It's essential for the future of the county that we have these commercial #i corridors. If these commercial corridors look blighted, it's a natural conclusion for them to believe the residential areas also must be blighted."

Business is starting to grow in these older communities, and with the help of beautification projects in Catonsville, Arbutus, Essex, Loch Raven, Towson and Pikesville some of these corridors could blossom.

A few months ago, the Baltimore County Office of Economic Development intensified efforts in the old commercial corridors, appointing three people to recruit business to those areas. They have been going door to door in 12 revitalization districts, asking business owners what assistance they need and telling them about low-interest loan programs.

Council members have been lobbying, even cajoling, businesses fix up their properties.

Thanks to government help, Liberty Court Shopping Center on Liberty Road is undergoing a $1 million renovation. Facades are being updated, the parking lot is being paved, and management hopes to lure a warehouse-style store to a vacant site once occupied by a supermarket.

Government loans helped DiPasquale's Italian Market take over the Pikes Theater site, boosting that community's efforts to build its reputation for good restaurants.

While government money has helped, real estate experts say most of the turnaround in older areas is because of the nation's recent economic growth.

"Government programs don't work unless the economy is good," said Tom Maddux, a principal with Towson-based commercial real estate brokerage KLNB Inc.

New strategies

Business owners also have played a part by devising strategies for older communities.

Dunleer Co., owner of Dundalk Village Shopping Center, lowered rental rates to attract stores. The tactic worked. New tenants include a variety shop, shoe store, cigarette discount store, a dollar store and an employment service. Signius, a company that provides telephone-answering and other services, will open in a former McCrory's store after New Year's.

Not everyone is convinced the area is improving. Ken Canterbery, who has run a hot dog stand in the shopping center for eight years, might leave next year if business doesn't improve.

"That area is dying," he said. "I see it as very bad."

No one pretends the old commercial strips will reclaim the position they held in the 1950s when they were the main shopping destinations.

"As our sense of community has changed, so has the definition of a community center," said Andrea Van Arsdale, who heads the commercial revitalization effort for the Baltimore County Office of Economic Development. "We won't compete with the mall and the superstore."

Establishing identities

Each commercial strip is seeking its identity.

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