New life seen for Main Street

Plan to restore charm of historic downtown

June 27, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

It's coming back.

Westminster's Main Street, struggling to regain its status as a historic hub despite being surrounded by chain stores and restaurants on Route 140, was recently named one of seven areas in Maryland targeted for historical and commercial revitalization.

The nearly three-mile stretch, resplendent with Victorian homes, buildings more than 100 years old, and even two reported ghosts in Cockey's Tavern and the Old Opera House, was placed on the state Department of Housing and Community Development's Main Street Maryland list this spring. It joins a national program that since 1977 has resulted in investment of more than $7 billion in 1,400 communities across the country. "We're on the verge of a second wind," said Kevin Dayhoff, a Westminster Common Council member. "We have a lot of momentum here -- the whole town is working together."

Last week, Dayhoff and a city delegation spent two days in Annapolis with experts from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and state planners reviewing proposals. Other cities on the Main Street list are Cumberland, Denton, Easton, Mount Rainier and Oakland, as well as Baltimore's Charles Village community.

By September, a plan is expected to be finished detailing how city officials will link those state and national experts and architects with local businesses to help reshape Main Street's image, said R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp., the city's nonprofit business community partner.

The Main Street Maryland designation is the economic boost local officials have been hoping for since 1994, when a consultant's report detailed ways to improve commerce and attract new businesses to the main drag. Already, $30,000 has been committed for improvements expected to begin later this year, Mathias said.

Dramatic improvements

"The condition of Main Street has improved dramatically over the past 20 years," said Tim Bryson, owner of Locust Books on Main Street. "But it is not something that has happened overnight -- nor is it something that ever comes to a finish."

Preserving Main Streets across the country is a top goal for the National Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit preservation group that earlier this month released a list of the 11 most endangered historic places and named the country's Main Streets among the sites in peril.

The trust has established a Main Street Center, which has a "main street" approach to downtown revitalization.

Authentic Main Street feel

The turnaround comes when many of the state's historic main streets are woefully lagging behind their modern commercial cousins -- strip malls, malls, chain stores and restaurants.

Ironically, many developers have set out to re-create the charm and intimacy of a main street in new developments like The Avenue at White Marsh, a popular new shopping village that cost $45 million.

In Westminster, the challenge lies in dealing with the real thing.

Many property owners along the shaded street may have to renovate their 19th-century buildings that hold antique shops, restaurants, delis and other small businesses, which attract an estimated 6,000 visitors each year.

First on the agenda is a push to analyze customer market data and help existing businesses expand and renovate. Low-interest state and local loans will help underwrite the effort, Mathias said.

"Our Main Street is the heart and soul of the community," Mathias said. "This will take up to 10 years to rejuvenate -- or longer."

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, Coffey Music. A Colorado sandwich chain is preparing to open in part of the old fire hall, and Mathias said an upscale bakery may soon open in the old Chef's Kitchen restaurant.

Harry Sirinakis, the third-generation owner of Harry's Main Street, is in the midst of a $540,000 expansion of his restaurant.

Key questions remain about the future of the old FarmersSupply Co. site, on Main Street at Green and Liberty streets, and the old post office, 83 E. Main Street. Both have been identified as "bookends" by Dayhoff in the revitalization effort.

An outpatient and residential mental health service is buying the old post office, but a three-month moratorium on building permits and site plans may delay construction there.

`Fresh, new people'

The changes are already drawing praise.

"The more time that's spent improving Main Street in any way -- whether it's more businesses, improvement of buildings or even planting trees -- I welcome," said Tony Giulianova, owner of Giulianova Groceria on Main Street, which features a tiny post office near the shop's extensive antipasto selections.

Giulianova said he would like to see Westminster's Main Street take on the popularity and vitality of Ellicott City's bustling main thoroughfare.

"I've got my regulars," he said. "But I cannot make a living on regulars alone. I need new people, fresh new people."

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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