Railroad, riverfront among keys to thriving economy


Sykesville, a town of about 4,500 on the border between Carroll and Howard counties, has a vibrant downtown, a rich railroad history and a charming riverfront.

Trading on those amenities should help the town draw its residents and visitors to its varied businesses, restaurants and attractions.

Town officials have started the Warfield Corporate and Culture Center, a $20 million business enterprise in former state hospital buildings along Route 32.

They have worked to restore a one-room schoolhouse as an African-American museum, a companion to the Gatehouse Museum, which houses town memorabilia.

A town pool and other recreational opportunities are in the works, and the Town Council has led a revitalization of Main Street along historic guidelines and has proposed to breathe new life into the riverfront the town shares with Howard County.

"There are projects happening that we have been cultivating for 20 years," said Mayor Jonathan Herman. "It takes a long time and a lot of hard work, but it is all starting to bear fruit."

The century-old train station became a restaurant, clapboard storefronts were restored to their original facades, and a small park was created to mark the town's centennial in 2004. Officials bought and cleared a junkyard, and made it into a municipal parking lot.

Sykesville is trading on its railroad roots with exhibits in several renovated train cars. It adapted a one-time railway switching tower to house a municipal post office on its first floor and a meeting room with walls of windows offering views in every direction on the second floor. A shop that sells model trains and railroad memorabilia is one of the most popular destinations on Main Street.

Work has begun on an $8 million intersection along Route 32, a crossing that will improve safety and help draw traffic to town businesses. Construction has begun on additions to the Town House and the police station.

"We have a lot of good people working hard to make things happen," Herman said. "This town has done a lot to foster its own success."

But Sykesville is not so busy or so big that it cannot take time to celebrate Thelma Wimmer Day, an annual birthday party for a former councilwoman and near-centenarian who is widely regarded as the town historian.

"We are really in an enviable position with a good location, three miles from Interstate 70," said Matt Candland, town manager. "Our geography buffers and surrounds us with parks. We have kept the flavor, identity and soul of a small town all the while in the midst of rapidly developing Central Maryland."

The group Destination Sykesville group was formed to encourage residents to patronize downtown businesses, and pathways are planned that would allow walking from new neighborhoods on the edges of town to Main Street, which is thriving with shops, offices, restaurants and small businesses.

An informal survey of residents about six months ago highlighted two strong priorities for downtown: a coffee shop and a bookstore.

"We are getting both," Candland said. "It is easy to shop online or at Wal-Mart, but we need shoppers to keep Main Street viable."

A bookstore and a coffee shop have opened.

"I finally found the right spot," said Debbie Scheller, owner of A Likely Story. "I want Main Street back. It is dying in America, and we all need to bring it back. This town is going in the right direction."

The store offers light refreshments, new and gently used books, and twice-weekly story times on the ground floor of an office building.

At the edge of town, Finders Keepers, an antiques and consignment shop, has been in business for five years.

"We stay busy, and we just love the Main Street atmosphere," said co-owner Maria Hooton.

Pam Graham, a member of the town's Historic District Commission and the Sykesville Business Association, is the newest business owner. She has given Manna Cafe, a tea and coffee shop, a Victorian flourish in "a new building with an old look," she said.

"The town has really worked with me," she said.

Visitors frequently inquire about possible vacancies on Main Street, but none exists, Candland said.

The corporate and culture center, a cluster of a dozen stately brick buildings, offers developers and business owners leasing possibilities. After a decade of planning, the town officially broke ground on the center last year.

Nexion Health Inc., a national health care provider and Warfield's first tenant, is spending $2 million to convert the 16,000-square-foot I Building into its corporate headquarters and might lease more space on the campus.

With nearly $15 million in state and county funds, Sykesville is constructing an intersection linking Route 32 to the complex and installing utilities and other infrastructure to spur economic development.

"Once the intersection is done, it will be the significant improvement that will change Warfield radically," Candland said. "It is one thing to have this piece of property and another to improve it significantly. Light bulbs will go off for everyone interested in developing it."

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