Momentum builds for a new Salisbury

Public, private interests agree on direction of downtown revival plan

November 27, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- For three generations, Susan Kuhn Purnell's family has stood fast, offering fine jewelry and personalized service in the historic downtown of this city that bills itself as "the Crossroads of Delmarva."

In the days since her grandfather took over the 107-year-old shop, it has weathered all the commercial knocks that have battered so many small-town business districts.

First was the exodus 30 years ago of merchants who left for the region's first enclosed shopping mall. The past decade has brought nearly 3 million square feet of retail development -- including the "new mall," the Centre at Salisbury -- sprawling along U.S. 13 at the northern end of town.

After years of false starts and fractious argument among retailers and the professionals who have converted empty stores for offices, downtown leaders say they're putting differences aside and beginning an effort to revive the district.

A $2 million restaurant due to open next spring has spurred hope that the city will make better use of its Wicomico River waterfront. The steady renovation of stately late-19th-century buildings shows promise for converting more ornate brick structures into boutiques, apartments and condominiums.

"I'm not saying it's going to be the Salisbury of yesterday with all the big old department stores," says Purnell, who quit a career as a New York marketing executive to return to her hometown five years ago. "But it's a downtown that makes a city unique, it's what gives it an identity."

For nearly a year, an eight-member task force appointed by Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman has been hammering out a plan to build on recent momentum.

Backing up the optimistic talk is a budget of $140,000 that will pay for a full-time promotion director. Business leaders have pledged $40,000 to match $30,000 put up by the city. The rest will come from state or federal grants.

"The economy is good, people are enthusiastic, now is the time to make it happen," Tilghman says. "It's going to work this time because we have a real public-private partnership. Right now, we're awash in commercial. We need to incorporate the arts, increase residential use, get more people back to the core of the city."

City officials and business leaders acknowledge that previous revitalization efforts have produced mixed results. Since the opening of Salisbury Mall in 1968, market studies, design charrettes, downtown revitalization plans and architectural reviews have been done. One proposal called for demolition of all but a few historic buildings and build a regional mall.

"Like so many tough issues, the tendency is to study it to death, then run out of energy to follow through," says Bradley A. Bellacicco, executive director of Greater Salisbury Chamber of Commerce. "Still, a lot has gone right. You don't see any boarded buildings here."

Business leaders say a steady trickle of specialty shops and professional offices has boosted the area in recent years. The problem is after 5 p.m., when office workers head home.

"The new frontier is residential," says O. Palmer Gillis III, who is one of downtown's largest landlords and has renovated several major buildings.

"In my mind, this isn't a revitalization. It's something that's been evolving," says Gillis, a city councilman who has announced he won't seek another term in May's municipal election.

Gillis has put apartments on the third floor of the ornate Gateway Building that houses his development company and says low-interest state loans and local tax breaks will spur more residential development.

"Recycling these great old buildings is the right thing to do, environmentally and economically," Gillis says. "How often do things mesh like this?"

The first move to counter competition from the mall was closing two blocks of Main Street in 1969 to create the Downtown Plaza, dominated by trees, shrubs, brick planters and water fountains.

Thirty years later, no consensus exists about keeping the pedestrian walkway or reopening the street to traffic. The topic is so touchy that task force members won't debate it, preferring to tackle other issues first.

"It's just too divisive, too polarizing for us to worry about right now," says Nancy Nyquist, a Washington native who owns a women's clothing shop on the plaza. "We want to keep the focus on getting more people downtown -- more businesses and more people who are living and shopping here."

After 30 years of trying to boost the business district, which is also home to city, Wicomico County, federal and state offices, downtown leaders say they need to change perceptions. Despite evidence, the public apparently believes shopping at the mall is safer and more convenient.

Studies done in recent years by Salisbury State University show that most shoppers would walk less and have quicker access to the plaza shops and restaurants from a 300-space municipal parking lot and an adjacent 500-space garage than they would trekking through acres of mall parking lots. Crime, university researchers say, is also less prevalent downtown.

"There is no reason that we cannot be an Easton or a St. Michaels," says Purnell. "We have to have a presence after 5 o'clock, and that means more restaurants, more entertainment, more residential. We need to be more than just a retail center. We need to be the cultural center of the city. That's where we're headed."

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