POCOMOKE CITY - Gene Lusby is pretty sure things are looking up for the downtown business district of this riverfront town. Some days, he actually has to search for a parking spot.
Lusby and his wife, Joanne, have worked since 1966 from the same brick Market Street storefront. They say the extra traffic is cause for optimism in the two-block commercial center, where recently it seemed that For Sale signs and vacant storefronts were everywhere.
And the Lusbys are not alone in thinking that the 300-year-old town, named for the dark and deep river that runs through it, has a shot at recapturing something of the glory days when Pocomoke, population 3,900, served as a hub for much of the Lower Eastern Shore.
The major hopeful sign is the Pocomoke Discovery Center, a proposed $6 million waterfront museum and ecology education complex that has drawn support from key state officials who could provide much of the cash for the project.
Then there's the art deco Mar-Va movie theater, where a nonprofit group is well on its way to restoring the 1927 building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Between the two sits a one-room schoolhouse that has drawn 400 visitors interested in the area's African-American history in the six months since volunteers relocated and restored the 100-year-old structure.
Short-term prospects have improved, too, with a trickle of small businesses - a doctor's office, a religious bookstore, a computer repair and sales shop, a coffee shop - filling vacant brick storefronts in recent months.
"It might sound funny in a town this size, but it has been hard getting a parking place," says Lusby, who, with his wife and son, sells and services everything from washing machines to lawn equipment and car stereos. "It's a start, but we have to give people a reason to come downtown."
Getting people downtown is what the Pocomoke River Marketing Partnership has in mind with an ambitious plan to turn a derelict hulk of a building along the riverfront into a 17,000-square-foot showcase for tourists and schoolchildren, who'll learn about the region's history and environmental diversity.
In addition to interactive displays, the museum would include a waterfront restaurant, an amenity that marketing studies have shown is crucial if the old business district is to become a destination for residents and tourists.
"The river is really what gives our town its identity," says Barbara Lee Tull, who owns a dress shop a block from city-owned boat slips that boosters hope will attract more boaters to tie up for a day or a weekend to explore the town. "Our whole history is right here - it's something that most small towns just don't have."
The idea, local leaders say, is to attract some of the 12 million visitors who surge into the region - especially to Ocean City - every summer. Worcester County towns such as Berlin and Snow Hill also are banking heavily on downtown redevelopment efforts to help draw tourists.
The Duncan building, which once housed an assembly plant for Model T Fords and later a car dealership, has sat empty for nearly 30 years. Structurally sound, the building occupies a prime spot along the riverfront that leaders see as the foundation for revitalization.
Beginning in 1996, Tull, banker Joseph E. Chisum, town officials and a handful of others formed the partnership and commissioned a market study to outline a strategy for the town to capitalize on its biggest asset - the Pocomoke River.
"You can look up the road here in Worcester County and see what can happen," Chisum says. "In Berlin, it all started with the restoration of the old Atlantic Hotel, and everything else snowballed from there. We're looking for that kind of catalyst."
So far, the project has cost about $225,000, half of it to buy the Duncan building through the state's Project Open Space program. Local leaders have hired a fund-raising consultant and will go to the General Assembly next month seeking $800,000 in state bond money that would be used to gut the building, stabilize it and install a new roof.
Last month, the project got a boost from state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who during a Worcester County tour urged local officials to go after state funding this year while the state enjoys a $375 million surplus.
"Obviously, $6 million is serious money - this is not something we cooked up sitting around somebody's coffee table," says Chisum. "It sounds trite, but if we build it, we believe they will come. We know we have to do something about getting people off the highway."
In this case, the highway is the U.S. 13 bypass, a four-lane divided highway used by an average 18,000 cars a day that pass the usual array of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, gas stations, motels and strip shopping centers.
Business leaders say the downtown district pretty much held its own through rapid development along the highway in the 1980s, but the opening three years ago of a 147,000-square-foot Wal-Mart accelerated the closing of shops downtown.
"Free enterprise is free enterprise, and what it tells us is that we have to adapt if we're going to be successful," says Marc Sher, a third-generation merchant whose family opened a downtown clothing store in 1933. In recent years, Sher has switched focus, concentrating on a bridal business that attracts clients from as far as Baltimore.
"I don't think we'll ever see the era when downtown was a big retail center," Sher says. "You have to specialize if you are going to get people to come to you. I just hate to see an empty store, whether it's an office, retail or whatever. You just want to see the lights on."