As practices open, Westminster set for Ravens, fans

Restaurants reap rewards of training-camp influx

other shops shut out

July 25, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Sonny Fantone leaned back in a patio chair and admired a prized possession: a framed and autographed picture of former Raven Tony Siragusa letting out his inner rock star in Sofia's in downtown Westminster.

Fantone's New Orleans-style pub opened last summer on West Main Street - in time for Ravens players to become regulars.

With players due back today for training camp and practices to begin tomorrow, the restaurateur hopes that football fans will visit for a little star-gazing.

"Fans want to catch the Ravens, and there's a good shot they could see somebody here," he said. "Last year was good - a lot of them found us, but last year they were champs."

With a Super Bowl trophy, the Ravens arrived in Westminster last year with expectations of large crowds in tow. But the team's future in the city was uncertain because its contract with what was then known as Western Maryland College was in its final year.

Now, the team has agreed to stay - at the newly named McDaniel College - for three more years. The deal gives the Ravens more space. The team will stage interactive activities for its fans at the school's tennis courts.

But as the Ravens return to Westminster for the seventh year, downtown merchants are waiting for a big payoff.

Lorraine V. VanLeeuwen, owner of 7 East Antiques and Collectibles on Main Street, has become indifferent to the ruckus.

"We never get excited anymore since there's been no increase in our business," she said.

Coaches and players have not made the trip into the Westminster Cigar Co., where trophy heads of deer and bighorn sheep line the walls.

"I don't know if they give them cigars up there, but we haven't seen anybody," said store employee Travis Zepp. He said that once in a while fans come in and pick up a couple of stogies to smoke at the practice field, but otherwise the foot traffic hasn't picked up while the football fans are in town.

But having the Ravens as summer residents has its benefits, said Ethan A. Seidel, a vice president of McDaniel College and chairman of the nonprofit Greater Westminster Development Corp.

"It brings a lot more awareness of where we are and brings a lot of people here," he said. "And though they may or may not spend much time in the area, they do become familiar with how easy it is to get here, so perhaps they'll come back for future events."

Stanley T. Ruchlewicz, economic development specialist for Westminster, said training camp brought in $1 million last year.

"The two-a-days make a big impact downtown since people need something to do between the morning and afternoon practices," he said. "There will be a lot of purple shirts floating around town."

Ruchlewicz said that the winners for fans' attention and wallets are places where they can cool off and get something to eat.

"The restaurants get big play," he said. Because many fans walk down from the fields at McDaniel College, being farther west on Main Street has a geographic advantage.

Harry's Main Street Grille "makes out real well since it's the first one they see. He's got the home-field advantage and at night Sofia's and Johanssons hope to pick up the evening trade - the players," Ruchlewicz said.

Unlike many old-timers on the street who fondly remember the constant interaction of the Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh native and Sofia's owner Fantone has only been here for a year.

"I'm the new kid in town and this is a tough time of year for restaurants, especially downtown with the heat and vacations, college kids not around, so personally I'm happy about the team coming to town," he said. Players and fans had their favorites, he said, but they discovered his restaurant later in the summer.

Fantone pointed to one set of pictures featuring former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

"He accidentally stopped in on the way to Johanssons one night, and then he became a regular," Fantone said. He said Lewis brought his coaching staff for a last dinner before they left town.

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