Investing in Main Streets

Renaissance: Participants in an urban renewal program are working to revitalize seven Baltimore business districts.

October 02, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Trash tossed along Washington Boulevard doesn't stop Jack Danna from trying to give Pigtown a pick-me-up -- physically and psychologically.

He even envisions a day when the empty storefronts in this part of Baltimore become viable businesses again and the sidewalks not only are swept clean, but stay clean.

"Yeah, I'm an optimist," he said one afternoon on a block in Morrell Park, also part of his district. "There are tough days. There are days when I wonder what have I gotten myself into."

It has been a year since Baltimore began its experiment with the Main Streets program, a publicly financed effort to improve neighborhood business districts by upgrading the physical environment, building cooperation among merchants and residents, promoting the area and strengthening its economic base.

Progress has been slow.

For one, the program lacks "big ticket" projects that can quickly transform a business district. (Officials acknowledge that turning some of the neighborhoods into healthy, thriving areas with vibrant business districts will take years.)

Officials working with the program argue against expecting immediate results. The program is designed to take incremental steps, and depends on community support for its success. Though the first year brought only small gains, program managers say they are not about to give up.

Banners have been hung in the seven city neighborhoods chosen to participate. Several stores are getting new facades and awnings. About $1 million in street lighting and other improvements are set to begin. City officials also point to a net increase of 33 businesses in the neighborhoods: Waverly, Federal Hill, Morrell Park/Washington Village, Belair-Edison, Hampden, Pennsylvania Avenue and East Monument Street.

About $1.3 million is funneled through the city Department of Housing and Community Development and spread among business districts in various states of decline.

Rick Packie, who manages the program in Belair-Edison, isn't surprised by the incremental progress. He worked with a similar program in Albuquerque, N.M., where a faM-gade improvement program took eight months to generate real interest and momentum.

"It always goes slower than you want it to," said Packie, who hopes to keep his area's sidewalks clean and work with local merchants to improve their window displays.

So much of the first year involves getting set up, said Packie, "and then you have to settle down and grind it out for a couple of years."

Lauren Adkins, coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which monitors 1,500 Main Streets programs nationwide, said Baltimore has taken a unique approach by not limiting its efforts to thriving neighborhoods. Mayor Martin O'Malley brought the idea to Baltimore after touring Boston, the only other major city with a Main Streets program. The mayor said he wanted to help marginal neighborhoods, not just those where success was virtually assured.

"I felt there were tangible things you can do for every commercial corridor," said O'Malley, who preserved the program's funding in this year's budget. "The banners may be symbolic but are nevertheless signs of rejuvenation."

For years, city officials barely noticed many of Baltimore's neighborhood business districts, which struggled as their major retailers folded or moved to the suburbs.

Areas such as The Avenue -- West 36th Street -- in Hampden and the business district around Charles, Light and Cross streets in Federal Hill gradually transformed themselves. Fashionable restaurants, boutiques and off-beat shops replaced some of the older stores.

But even those neighborhoods face a tough balancing act as they seek to blend the past with the future. Federal Hill lost its Eddie's supermarket and in turn is getting a Dollar Store. Katie Wilson-Ebaugh, Main Streets manager for Federal Hill, said the hardest part of her job is encouraging people to be patient. Even an area on the upswing can have problems filling vacant storefronts.

"It's not an easy sell," she said. "There are people in the neighborhood who want it to remain as it always has."

Jules E. "Sonny" Morstein, president of the local merchant's association, said a big benefit of the Main Streets program is that it provides the area with paid staff whose job is to look out for the neighborhood. The managers involve themselves in all aspects of the business district. They can be equal parts cheerleader and critic. "[The Main Streets program] has brought neighbors and businesses together like I never expected. And, you know, that's what makes a community," said Morstein.

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