City's business districts find an avenue for pride

Program: Seven of the city's business areas have qualified for the Main Street initiative, designed to revive struggling commercial districts.

January 30, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

During Hampden's campaign for a slot in the citywide Main Street program, a foursome led by Mary Pat Andrea and Denise Whiting dressed up and sang as classic coiffed "Hons" who served lunch during their presentation to judges.

Their plan worked: Out of a field of 14 that day last summer, Hampden was one of five community business zones chosen for program designed to resuscitate struggling commercial districts.

Hampden residents are now considering fund-raising initiatives, facade and design improvements, and marketing and promotion plans.

"It forces people to prioritize their needs, wants, desires in making change, " said Dominic Wiker, 29, the city official administering the city's Main Street districts. Two districts were later added from the federal empowerment zone, making a total of seven.

Self-help process

The program, presented as a self-help process for small commercial arteries to spruce themselves up, encourages rehabilitation of historic buildings, compatible and eye-catching new construction, and community involvement and investment.

"Commercial districts are anchors for community development and a source of pride," said Laurie Schwartz, a deputy mayor. "Physical image, lighting, banners and facades are all part of it."

Along with Hampden, other participants are Waverly, Belair-Edison, Pennsylvania Avenue, Federal Hill, Washington Boulevard and East Monument Street. The communities will share $1.5 million in city and state funds over five years and will receive advice on improving their areas from the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Investment attracted

Though Baltimore's program is in the first phase, city officials say it has attracted about $500,000 of private investment, which is one of the program's goals. The Main Street designation signals a community is on the move, said Schwartz: "It adds a sense of momentum to have a commitment from the city."

First used 20 years ago to revive rural small towns, a Boston pilot program proved it could work in urban business districts, city officials say. Baltimore became the second major city to adopt the process after Mayor Martin O'Malley visited the Boston program last year.

Each Main Street district held community meetings last fall, which invited residents and merchants -- or "stakeholders" in program parlance -- to imagine improvements in their areas.

At a meeting in Belair-Edison, Catherine Carey ventured: "I don't mean Hollywood glamour, but happy, friendly, fun."

Senior center

Others among the dozens of Belair-Edison residents gathered in the gold ballroom of La Fontaine Bleu restaurant said they would like to see such things as a versatile barber and a senior service center, among other improvements. They said they're interested in breaking the language barrier with Korean merchants, better infrastructure and community unity.

Leading the discussion at the Belair-Edison meeting was Lauren Adkins, the National Trust senior program associate coordinating the Baltimore programs. Three of the priorities voiced were a more pedestrian-friendly area, a park that people would use and infrastructure improvement.

Solutions are supposed to come from statements gleaned from the community meetings and tailored to each district.

Despite significant social and economic differences in the seven areas, Wiker has found the same themes regarding parking, trash, and pedestrian issues: "They're all much more alike than different."

Common denominator

One common denominator among the city's business districts, Schwartz said, is that storefronts are more likely to be sole proprietorships than national chains.

So it is along "The Avenue," West 36th Street in Hampden, where shopkeepers range from Tom Thompson at the Coffee Mill, Susannah B. Siger at the eclectic Oh Said Rose clothes and jewelry shop, and Sharon Chesney at the Mud and Metal crafts shop.

"It brings a new energy, which is exciting," said Chesney about the Main Street program.

Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon, is all too aware of the work ahead to improve the streetscape. "When I look at [The Avenue], I see sidewalk bricks patched with cement and streetlights, 1970s-style, way too high," she says.

"I have a vision of what West 36th Street can really be, or what it used to be."

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