Revitalizing Shore town

Projects seem poised to breathe new life into Pocomoke City

November 02, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,sun reporter

POCOMOKE CITY -- A decade ago, the old Mar-Va Theater didn't look like a good bet for restoration - especially in a fading downtown that was losing its luster to the new Wal-Mart and other chain stores on the U.S. 13 bypass.

An ancient furnace had given up the ghost. The place had become home to an assortment of bugs, birds and feral cats. Worse, the roof of the ornate 1927 art deco vaudeville stage and movie house was a disaster. Volunteers recall futile efforts to contain rain leaks with dozens of buckets.

But this month, the Eastern Shore theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is set to open with a live presentation of historical skits, the first event since the movie screen went dark in 1996. Organizers say it will be something of a dry run before a grand opening scheduled for spring.

"This theater just captured my imagination," said Ann Glovier, executive secretary of the Mar-Va Performing Arts Center. "Everybody in this town, in this area, has such memories of the place. It has been a long haul, but we just couldn't let it go down."

A block across Market Street, the main drag in this town of 5,000 that has always been a commercial center for the Lower Shore, an abandoned car dealership that was once a Ford Model T assembly plant is also being transformed.

The cavernous Duncan Bros. Garage and Automobile Agency, vacant for nearly 30 years, occupies a prime spot along the chocolate-colored river that gave the town its name.

The old dealership is scheduled to open in the spring of 2008 as the Pocomoke Discovery Center, a $4 million riverfront museum and ecology education center.

The center is designed to allow visitors to walk through an elaborate network of indoor displays depicting river ecology, including a cypress swamp, saltwater marshes and animals.

Human history along the river will begin with a Native American village and will include sections on boat building and the steamboat era.

After years of dogged planning, cajoling, fundraising and other work by volunteers, the twin projects appear poised to breathe new life into the town.

The pace has been maddeningly slow at times, said Barbara Tull, president of the discovery center's nonprofit board, and there have been plenty of skeptics along the way.

"People said we were crazy for even thinking we could raise this kind of money in Pocomoke," said Tull, a retired shopkeeper whose upscale women's store was a Market Street anchor for 35 years. "We started with an idea that we weren't using our biggest asset, the river. It's taken this long to begin to see it coming to fruition."

Doubters have questioned whether Pocomoke City - three hours from Baltimore and an hour off the beaten track from Ocean City - could draw enough visitors to support either attraction.

But longtime activists such as Curt Lippoldt, board president of the Mar-Va (named for the town's location along the Maryland-Virginia border) say that once the ornate venue is fully restored, attendance won't be a problem.

"For a lot of us, this theater project was a quality-of-life issue," said Lippoldt, a native New Yorker who owned a hardware store for nearly 30 years and was mayor for a couple of terms. "We're really a desert here for entertainment. The theater is the heart of town."

For some volunteers, the theater restoration has become a full-time job assisting or supervising contractors who have completed major systems, including a new sound system, heating and air conditioning, new electrical service and a sprinkler system.

Specialists were hired to duplicate the paint color and design that were part of the art deco interior. Volunteers completed other projects, such as refurbishing the distinctive marquee.

"I'm here every day, 8 a.m. to about 4:30," said George Staubs, a retired insurance company engineer who has overseen contractors and volunteers for two years. Among Staubs' contributions are fiberglass ceiling tiles he designed to replace damaged portions of the original pressed-tin ceiling 23 feet above the theater floor.

Organizers see the refurbished theater as an option for a variety of performing arts, live entertainment, dinner theater, graduations and wedding receptions, and as a setting for corporate meetings and seminars. Such users would help pay an estimated $200,000 a year in upkeep and expenses. The opening is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Worcester County officials point to Pocomoke's northern neighbor, Berlin, as a model for restoring its two-block business district. The Berlin turnaround began with the restoration of the Globe Theater and the Atlantic Hotel.

"Sure, Berlin has that location right outside Ocean City, but with these two anchors, Pocomoke has a lot to offer," said Lisa Challenger, the county's tourism director. "Route 13 averages 20,000 cars a day ... past Pocomoke. The average daily count for Route 50 near Ocean City is about the same."

Challenger said county officials are hoping to piggyback on a booming motor coach business that could offer side trips from the beach to events at the Mar-Va or visits to the Discovery Center.

Russell Blake, a Michigan native who has been Pocomoke's city manager for 31 years, said many people are counting on the two projects to boost the downtown district with small shops, restaurants and niche retailers that wouldn't compete with the big-box stores along U.S. 13.

"The downtown is viable right now," Blake said. "But any downtown is never completed. You're never finished with your downtown."

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