Main Street is focus of renewal

Westminster: Downtown is seeing a renaissance with trendy shops, restaurants, businesses and the restoration of century-old buildings.

April 25, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Westminster is re-creating its downtown, mixing its hometown flavor into blocks with trendy and long-established restaurants, unusual and standard shops and high-tech businesses.

The Carroll County seat, a city of about 17,000 residents, is preserving its century-old downtown buildings and adapting them to 21st-century uses.

"We don't have the space to get national chains, but we have room for unique specialty shops that keep Main Street interesting," said Stanley T. Ruchlewicz, administrator of the city's economic development office.

"We are building on places like the Hickory Stick and the Cigar Shop. We have four small bookstores and a library and a train that comes right through downtown almost every day. These are all things you don't see elsewhere," he said.

Rather than build, the city is reworking the space it has. Shops are moving into former residences, fire stations and post offices.

The 70-year-old post office building, long considered the linchpin of downtown revitalization, has undergone a revitalization of its own, since Kohn Design and Printing Co. bought it a few years ago.

The owner of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, kept the words "post office" above its entry as well as the columns flanking the front door and the distinctive windows facing Main Street.

"It still looks so much like a post office that people still come in to mail letters," Ruchlewicz said. "The company has brought white-collar, high-paying jobs to Westminster."

The tan brick firehouse, built in 1896 and sold 101 years later, was restored into a retail and office complex with the building's clock tower still dominating the city's skyline and chiming the hour. The fire company built a bigger station on John Street and relocated there in 1997. The new firehouse includes a museum featuring the history of Westminster's volunteer fire company.

Westminster Square, two levels of office and retail space topped by two floors of condominiums, opened recently on Liberty Street. Several of the eight condominiums, all with views of the city, have been sold. Next door, a 135-year-old stone building will soon become the city's first Irish pub.

City and state dollars have also helped several merchants spruce up their businesses.

"Neat shops are coming in and mixing with the old standards," Ruchlewicz said. "We even have stores in basements, like the Comic Book Store. We have a nice walkable space in terms of interest. We are really encouraged that so many businesses are fixing up facades and whole buildings. People are investing in terms of new business and into existing structures."

The stores at street level have found such success that they are attracting tenants to the upper stories, said Thomas B. Beyard, city director of planning and public works.

"Suddenly city real estate is attractive for vertical expansion - offices on second and third floors," he said. "Rents have gone up, and marginal businesses have left, making way for more upscale retail.

The arts also are flourishing. The Carroll County Arts Council, which Ruchlewicz calls "a bookend anchor with the historical society," opened its $1.4 million center two years ago in a restored movie theater. The historical society is building a campus in several restored buildings at the east end of Main Street. The arts council has brought to the city a stage and gallery that have attracted well-known performers and artists, and that has led to sold-out shows.

The city also claims an art shop and a pottery store, which offer classes as well as wares.

"We try to feature artists from all over the county and cater to all aspects of the community," said Randi Buergenthal, co-owner of ArtWorks, which opened on Main Street last fall.

Ruchlewicz said, "These are the types of businesses that Main Street can offer and most malls can't. We have one block that goes from hip chic to formal bridal."

Suzanne Schreuver, owner of Bear About Town, a craft shop, said she chose a downtown location for its atmosphere.

"I am in the middle of busy stores that appeal to all ages, and the foot traffic is really picking up," she said.

Mindy Bianca, spokeswoman for the state Office of Tourism, said the renewed interest in Westminster is a reflection of what is happening in many of Maryland's towns.

"It has a lot to do with marketing yourself and how you develop, grow and change," Bianca said. "Westminster is a very different town from what it was 20 years ago. That is because it has poured time, money and the energy of its people into downtown. A lot comes down to marketing savvy and spreading the word about what makes your history and culture significant."

Visitors can find a restaurant on nearly every block of downtown and on several of its side streets. From delis and coffee shops to fine dining and exotic cuisine, "our restaurants are really getting creative" and maximizing space with decks and outdoor dining, Ruchlewicz said.

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