The rise and fall of two town centers

COMMENT

January 10, 1999|By BRIAN SULLAM

AS OF THIS month, you can no longer buy a razor blade or fill a prescription in downtown Annapolis.

In about six months, you will be able to buy a steak or a dozen oranges in the heart of Glen Burnie.

The juxtaposition of these two occurrences shows that even in a single county, downtown redevelopment can take widely divergent paths.

In late December, the Rite Aid closed on Annapolis' Main Street. Days later, ground was broken for a new Food Lion supermarket about 20 miles up the road in Glen Burnie.

Crab paperweights

It is now virtually impossible for any downtown Annapolis residents to take care of household shopping by walking around the block unless they need a high-priced pair of khaki pants, a crab paperweight or a silk-screened T-shirt.

However, if they need a package of flour, to drop off a suit at the cleaners or new soles on a worn pair of loafers, they have to pile in the car and drive miles to shop at the city's outskirts, like any suburbanite.

In Glen Burnie, the opposite is happening.

After three decades of decline in which long-established businesses -- from lumberyards to bakeries -- closed their doors, Glen Burnie hopes that the opening of the Food Lion grocery is a step toward a commercial renaissance.

Significant development

Located on a block bounded by Ritchie and Crain highways and New Jersey Avenue, the supermarket is a significant commercial development in the heart of Glen Burnie. It follows nearly two decades of abortive attempts to resuscitate the town's core.

County planners believe that the new supermarket, in a shopping center that also includes a bank, pizza and sub shop, dry cleaners, hair salon and coffee shop, will be the catalyst to rejuvenate the adjacent commercial blocks.

If the fondest dreams of planners and developers are realized, Glen Burnie residents in a few years will be able to take care of errands -- from depositing a check to purchasing a faucet washer -- by walking around the town center.

Before Annapolis became a tourist destination, residents were also able to run all their errands by walking around downtown.

Therein lies one of the ironies of redevelopment.

As historic Annapolis became a tourist hot spot and shopping malls blossomed in nearby suburbs, the downtown stores and shops oriented to serving immediate residents and those from surrounding communities were squeezed out.

Ground meat and burgers

In the past two decades, the number of visitors began to outnumber downtown residents. And tourists in need of food generally don't buy a dozen eggs or a pound of ground meat, opting for an egg sandwich or a hamburger instead.

Tourists also aren't in the market for underwear or suits. If they are looking for a white T-shirt, it must come with a stenciled message. If they are shopping for a sweater, it must be made of wool clipped and woven from the Hebrides Islands.

So began the decline of the stores that served residents and the ascent of glitzy boutiques, fast food restaurants and bars that catered to tourists.

Landlords took advantage of this reorientation. A nationally known retail chain such as The Gap or Banana Republic is more willing -- and able -- to pay a premium rent than a neighborhood haberdashery shop to get access to Main Street's foot traffic.

Rents of $40 a square foot only make economic sense if the foot traffic approaches what a store might see in a big enclosed shopping mall or on a well-traveled street in a large city.

Trendy retailers know they can make money on Annapolis' Main Street in spite of the expensive rents. The local clothiers, grocers or hardware store owners figure they can't.

The result of this entrepreneurial dynamic is a bustling retail center with few shops that are attractive to Annapolis' year-round residents.

Glen Burnie's problem

Glen Burnie's problem was more fundamental.

Retailers abandoned the traditional town center for shopping malls and strip centers. Even though Glen Burnie-area residents still needed food, clothing and household items, they traveled to Harundale Mall, Glen Burnie Mall or Marley Station on Ritchie Highway.

Food Lion's appearance in the center of Glen Burnie will not suddenly reverse the long decline. But should the supermarket lure more people to the town center, more merchants may find it worth their while to open in now vacant or underutilized storefronts.

In the best of all worlds, the very neighborhood-style commercial establishments that vacated Annapolis might find new homes -- and customers -- in Glen Burnie's town center.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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