Merchants disagree on how to draw customers

Downtown Annapolis, malls explore avenues of cooperation

December 14, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Marlene Feldman and a half-dozen of her girlfriends drove in Thursday from the Eastern Shore to do a little Christmas shopping in downtown Annapolis.

The group of women are exactly what downtown retailers hope for this season: shoppers willing to eschew the hectic malls for some original gifts. But the women had mixed feelings about some of the ideas being kicked around by some retailers and city officials for boosting downtown retail during an especially tough economic time.

One of those ideas: A shuttle service to promote Annapolis as a retail triangle. The shuttle would link Westfield Annapolis Mall, the new Parole Towne Centre and downtown. Another idea would be an Annapolis Shopping Day to promote shopping at all three venues.

The shuttle idea didn't make much sense to the 55-year-old Feldman, who picked up a small ice scoop for $20 at Blanca Flor Silver Jewelry by the waterfront. After she and her friends hit the stores, they planned to have a long lunch.

"I think the mall is what you do for errands and this is what you do for fun," said Feldman, who lives in Cambridge.

Her friend Cookie Brohawn agreed. She loves to stroll the streets and gaze at the evergreen-framed store windows. Even if it was raining, the waterfront town has an atmosphere that can't be replicated, she said.

"It's the old-fashioned Christmas scene," said Brohawn, 65, who also lives in Cambridge.

Two weeks ago, the Annapolis department of economic affairs sponsored a panel discussion put on by the Maryland Downtown Development Association. The topic: how the Towne Centre, mall and independent store owners could work together instead of compete. Representatives from all three said they plan to coordinate schedules so they don't have competing events, and to share information regarding crime.

The Annapolis Business Association, which represents independent stores, has been looking at ways to promote Main Street shops. The opening of the $500 million Parole Towne Centre in October took its share of shoppers and diners just when the economic crisis hit Wall Street hardest.

Donna DeGarcia, owner of Blanca Flor, said it has been slow downtown for at least a year. Last December, DeGarcia opened up a satellite store at the mall, which is doing better than her downtown store, which has been open 15 years. The perception of a lack of parking always will dog downtown retailers, she said.

"I think people have grown up in the suburbs and are not used to parking in the city," DeGarcia said. "They don't have the patience."

That's why she thinks a shuttle would be a great idea. Park at the mall and hop on the bus, she said.

Although the city has the equipment to run a shuttle service, it needs money to do so, said Mike Miron, director of the department of economic affairs. The program would need the cooperation - and funding - of retail partners. Not all of them believe this is a good idea.

A shuttle service doesn't make sense because each shopping area is distinct, attracting different shoppers who might not want to visit all three places, said Tom Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer of the Centre's developer, Greenberg Gibbons of Owings Mills.

Greenberg Gibbons wants to help out in other ways, he said. The company would be willing to collaborate on event schedules so they wouldn't compete against downtown events. For example, the Towne Centre would not want to spoil the fun of the annual December Midnight Madness shopping days, when city retailers open their doors until midnight and fete shoppers with food, drinks and sales.

Fitzpatrick said the Towne Centre, however, would like to discuss ways to collaborate on large events downtown, such as the New Year's Eve celebration and the boat show.

"How might we coordinate a better event program so we could all contribute?" Fitzpatrick asked.

The Midnight Madness event Dec. 4 packed shoppers into Diva, a women's boutique a few doors down from Blanca Flor. The owner, Michele Deckman, is vice president of the Annapolis Business Association.

Deckman thinks the parking issue could be tackled with a shuttle from city parking garages, such as Gott's on Calvert Street, Knighton on West Street and the Bladen Street garage. The latter has free parking on weekends - something that she said could be promoted with better signage or advertising.

"The locals are not going to ride a public transit system, and I don't think downtown needs to ship its tourists to the mall," Deckman said.

Adam Tracey, general manager of Westfield Annapolis Mall, said the mall would be willing to consider a shuttle proposal, but his primary concern is keeping parking available for his customers. The availability of parking was a major customer concern during the mall's $150 million expansion last year.

Tracey said, however, that he looks forward to collaborating on joint events, including a possible restaurant week: "The more we collaborate and work together, the more attractive Annapolis is as a destination."

Miron said he would continue meeting with retailers after Christmas to keep the dialogue going and pursue ways of funding a shuttle service. He said the city is helping retailers in other ways. He sent out letters last week to store owners offering them $2,500 grants to spruce up their facades. Retailers would have to match the grant. So far, he has two applications.

"I'm hoping 15 properties will use it," Miron said.

The Annapolis Business Association is hoping to attract a better mix of businesses to lure more locals downtown on a regular basis, said Jessica Jordan, president of the business association. Jordan, who owns the women's boutique Paradigm on Main Street, said the association has formed an economic development committee that plans to map trends and tackle vacancies.

"Let's fill it [downtown] with something viable and long-term," Jordan said.

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