Merchants weather downtown changes Post office move hurt some in Westminster

December 28, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Business in downtown Westminster in the past three months of this year has been: (a) down the tubes; (b) about the same as in the final quarter of 1997; or (c) considerably better.

The answer depends on which merchant makes the assessment.

The departure of the Westminster post office, which moved from its historic site at 83 E. Main St. in August to the northern edge of the city, has hurt downtown retail businesses that depended heavily on people strolling by and stopping to look at merchandise. Destination businesses, where customers go for specific items, saw little or no effect. Some merchants reported a brief decline, followed by a bounce back.

Interviews with 28 downtown retail merchants produced a portrait of a generally healthy business district, with a few exceptions. But many merchants miss having an anchor store such as Mather's, a department store that closed in 1996 after 106 years.

"Main Street needs a draw. The draws we had are gone." said Joe Markowitz, owner of Joe's Deli.

Some merchants complain of parking meters being used all day by downtown workers. Some want additional promotional events to bring people downtown. Others preach self-reliance.

Patty Keener, owner of Locust Antiques, says that downtown Westminster is on the verge of becoming a vital, energized business district, but it's been on the verge for several years. "You can almost see it ready to happen, but it kind of lags behind, and we don't know why," she said.

Keener said she doesn't know how to attract a major retailer that would boost smaller businesses. "The only way I know to do it is to make this place look so good that people will want to come," she said.

She has put her philosophy into action. She and antiques dealer Kevin Wagman decorated the windows of a vacant historic stone building. Next spring, she hopes to talk to the mayor and Common Council on programs such as landscaping.

Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan agreed that landscaping is important, but he believes downtown business won't boom until merchants change their hours. "If I hear a merchant say he can't compete with the mall and he's closing early, well, the mall doesn't close at 4 or 5 [p.m.]," he said.

Extended hours haven't helped Antiques & Collectibles, a 6-year-old store where manager Lorraine Van Leeuwen said business has been down the past three months. In an effort to lure customers, the owner opened Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights and all day Sunday during the fall "and did no business," she said.

In contrast, Kim Prehn, owner of Unique Jewelry, a half-block east of the antiques store, said her business is much better than in the last three months of 1997, a success she attributes to advertising.

At the bustling Kountry Kafe and Katering, co-owner Shirley Spencer has heard a reverse twist on the merchants missing the post office. "The post office people [say they] miss being able to come to us, because they have to get in the car and drive here," she said.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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