An elusive Main St. U-turn

Vision: Taneytown faces a common dilemma in trying to revive its downtown: Residents have the will, but struggle to find the way.

May 29, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Veiled in trees and appointed with antique furniture, ornate rugs and an elite restaurant, the Antrim 1844 Country Inn offers the sort of country luxury wealthy travelers want.

Visitors, who pay between $235 and $375 a night, invariably ask innkeeper Richard Mollett what they should do in surrounding Taneytown. There are two antiques stores, he tells them, but other than that, it's better to shop and stroll in Gettysburg, Emmitsburg or Frederick.

"The Antrim has been sort of its own little world over there," said Nancy McCormick, Taneytown's economic development director. "The guests haven't traditionally gotten out and walked around much, and for a long time, you could hardly blame them."

Taneytown wants to change that. Through aggressive revitalization of Main Street, actually called Baltimore Street, it hopes to squeeze money from Antrim guests and Gettysburg tourists. The city also wants a more vibrant, inviting downtown for its 5,000 residents.

That desire unifies Taneytown with virtually every town or small city in Maryland. The state has a few trademark downtowns -- Annapolis with its historic capitol and harbor, Ellicott City with its railroad, riverfront and eclectic shops -- but far more cities and towns are struggling to create identities that might attract new residents and businesses.

Local officials across Maryland and the nation agree that Main Street is the chief identifying feature of any small community. That's why so many towns and cities, from Salisbury to Cumberland to Bel Air, are at some stage of a downtown improvement program. Last year, towns participating in revitalization programs reinvested $15.2 billion in their downtowns and created 52,000 new businesses and 206,000 new jobs, according to the Washington-based National Main Street Trust.

"You can't talk about small-town living without talking about Main Street," said Ken Decker, town manager of Hampstead, which is devising a downtown plan. "It's the commerce center, but it's also a public space, so it gives you a real insight into the character of the community. How goes Main Street, so goes the town."

With officials such as Gov. Parris N. Glendening determined to prevent sprawl, government grants and incentives abound for towns looking to revitalize their already-developed areas.

The Maryland Main Street Program and the National Main Street Trust lend towns their expertise, saving the communities consulting and design costs. Small grants are available from Maryland Community Legacy Program and from state and national groups concerned with revitalization. But most of the funds come from the towns, which must persuade local businesses to participate.

Taneytown presents a test of the effectiveness of revitalization programs because it is not a county seat, not close to Baltimore or Washington, not a well-known historical site and presents no unusual geographical traits.

Most storefronts have remained occupied, and people stroll Baltimore Street in the evening. But residents see rougher sidewalks and shabbier facades than they want. For every craft shop, there's a Taney Pawn, for every historic building, a top floor with boarded windows. More important, residents note a lack of distinction.

"It's pretty typical of what happens with small towns when businesses move out to shopping centers," said Linda Galvin, a volunteer leader of Taneytown's revitalization effort since 1999. "As the center of a community, our downtown is a bit empty."

The city government formed a beautification committee in the mid-1990s, and out of that blossomed a Main Street revitalization effort. Residents, merchants and officials knew they wanted to improve something, but their vision was and remains unclear.

Without a widely known feature to build around, Taneytown should become a cleaner, prettier, more lively version of itself, the consensus goes. But what does that mean? The government will restore City Hall, build a new police station and work with the State Highway Department to redo sidewalks and street lighting. But it can't magically create craft shops or bistros, and it can't force existing businesses to gussy up their facades. Fortunately, McCormick and others say, revitalization blueprints exist.

Taneytown became Maryland's sixth Main Street Community last year. The state-run Main Street Maryland program, which borrows its philosophy from the National Main Street Trust, offers free consulting on all facets of revitalization. Towns apply to join for three-year stretches.

The strategy begins with an organization of concerned business owners, residents and government officials. Taneytown has that. The city budgeted $5,000 to its Main Street organization last year and will give $7,500 this year for operating and promotional costs. "They're our most organized community," said Cindy Stone of Main Street Maryland.

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