Baltimore began its ambitious effort yesterday to revive ailing neighborhoods by bringing business back to once-thriving shopping hubs, with officials kicking off a five-stop tour of Baltimore Main Streets communities.
Just two days into his job as the new program's director, Dominic E. Wiker was joined by national Main Street representatives and community leaders in touring the commercial strips along Belair Road and Erdman Avenue in Belair-Edison - one of five neighborhoods chosen for the program last month. The city is spending $1 million this year on a program that has successfully sparked private investment in retail districts across the country, helping to erase blight, recruit business, and lower crime and vacancies.
Main Streets, adapted from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Center, strives to bring customers downtown by giving merchants and residents tools to organize, promote shopping areas, find small grants for storefront repairs and recruit new shops.
Wiker formerly was business development manager for the Downtown Partnership. He plans to meet with residents and merchants during the next two weeks in the five targeted neighborhoods, which also include Waverly, Pennsylvania Avenue, Hampden and Federal Hill.
In Belair-Edison, where a mix of century-old, two-story buildings and converted rowhouses hold some 100 businesses, among them convenience stores and carryouts, barbershops and beauty supply stores, residents and merchants have battled vacancies, loitering, trash and rundown storefronts, with some success - the vacancy rate has dropped from 20 percent to 10 percent. But trash and dumping remain problems. Storefronts appear dingy, and signs clutter windows.
Community leaders are hoping Main Streets will let them build on their efforts, allowing them to create an urban design plan and bring in a more balanced mix of stores, such as a family restaurant, a clothing store, shoe stores and an electronics retailer.
"We're confident that Main Streets will push things forward and get attention from the city and from national businesses," said Barbara Aylesworth, executive director of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, a commercial revitalization group that will oversee the Main Streets effort in Belair-Edison. "We need to strengthen what we have and bring in more anchors to create destination shopping."
The group has a head start, Wiker said yesterday, thanks to its strong community and merchants associations with a record of accomplishments. They have installed new lighting, banners, trees and bus shelters. The Belair-Edison representatives recognize "their neighborhood isn't truly successful until the commercial corridor works," Wiker said.
Before malls sprouted in the suburbs, Belair-Edison boasted a movie theater, clothing and shoe stores, hardware and office supply stores, restaurants, bakeries, a grocery and a drugstore. Though Rite Aid has opened a store and CVS plans to build one, the neighborhood has had trouble attracting a broader mix and establishing a clear image.
Wiker said yesterday that he envisions new businesses over the long term. But first, he said, modest private investment from existing businesses - providing new signs and storefronts and better maintenance of sidewalks - will be needed to attract new businesses.
"This is a gateway community to the downtown area," said Rick Packie, who will head Main Streets in Belair-Edison, adding that he hopes to attract the attention of commuters passing through on their way downtown, "so they can see a vibrant business district."
Each Main Streets neighborhood gets $45,000 for administration, $25,000 for grants for storefront improvements and $2,000 for promotions. Business owners and community associations are expected to provide matching funds. Main Streets also offers technical support to merchants, such as advice from architects and business consultants. Belair-Edison will start by setting up committees on design, promotion, organization and economic restructuring.