Art gallery idea gains favor in Westminster

Merchants eye business use, not a mental health facility, for the old post office

July 06, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Lou Chang hopes to win the lottery and buy Westminster's historic Main Street post office building, then rip open its interior, refurbish its oak and marble, and transform it into an art gallery and coffee bar.

A sampling of downtown merchants indicates her dream suits their needs far better than a residential facility planned by a Westminster mental health group, Key Point Health Services, which is now on hold.

The merchants said they would like to see the building used to draw people downtown.

"We had really talked about making a gallery space," said Chang, owner of Ain't That a Frame at 31 W. Main St.

She had planned in the spring to move her art shop to the former post office and have the owners of the Chameleon restaurant -- also on Main Street -- run a coffee bar in it.

"That's what we were hoping was going to happen, what we would have liked to have seen," said Sandy Scott, an owner of the Hickory Stick shop on Liberty Street and president of the Westminster Business Association, who said she has talked with members about the situation.

Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council at 15 E. Main St., agreed: "As a downtown business person, any business that we can attract that would bring foot traffic to the area is so important.

"It is such a beautiful building. We would love to keep it beautiful and keep its historic value. And of course, I would love to see something artsy happening there."

Chang said she offered to buy the building in March but withdrew the offer in May, before the sale.

Chang said her efforts were stymied by the building's $575,000 price; even the most generous bank loan at 80 percent of the total would leave her short of cash, Chang said. She would also need at least $150,000 to open the interior, install a hardwood floor and restore the oak entrance.

"The idea of a mental institution, I think, would change the entire downtown," Chang said. "If they want to foster merchant growth, I think that would kill it."

The health care company has a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to buy the building, but its plans are on hold while city officials try to find an alternate site.

Last month, Westminster's Common Council voted to suspend the business zoning on the site, with an eye toward a new downtown-commercial zoning designation.

Council President Damian L. Halstad said he plans to meet this month with representatives of Key Point Health Services and the council's housing and community development subcommittee.

Tim Bryson, owner of Locust Books on East Main Street, said, "I understand the city's position. It makes sense to me that the building is a keystone. I think it's great that the city recognizes that, in deciding the best use of it, but of course, if I were trying to buy it and my purchase of it was kind of taken away from me, I'd be upset.

"But it sounds as if the city is making a genuine effort to help the organization find another location."

Chang said, "It may be wishful thinking, but I'll never give up the hope." She said she might seek state assistance, but in the meantime plans to buy a few lottery tickets.

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