Balto. Co. works to jump-start commercial growth on Main Streets

Officials seeking to spread the success of Catonsville's Frederick Road

  • Sean T. Dunworth, proprietor, Catonsville Gourmet Market & Fine Foods.
Sean T. Dunworth, proprietor, Catonsville Gourmet Market… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
May 05, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

When Catonsville Gourmet opened three years ago, the seafood restaurant quickly became a regional draw, giving new life to the town's commercial center along Frederick Road.

With Baltimore County officials offering one-on-one advice and fast-tracking his plan to loan officers, the restaurant's owner, Sean Dunworth, was soon turning away people who lacked dinner reservations. And as Catonsville Gourmet flourished, other retailers and restaurateurs took notice. Current tenants spruced up their storefronts and prospective owners gave the area a second look.

Now, county officials want to spread the success in Catonsville to Perry Hall, Pikesville and other communities that have struggled to find a niche. Aging strip malls dot main corridors in many of the county's older neighborhoods, and shoppers often complain that too many of the same kinds of businesses — mattress stores, gas stations, laundromats, fast-food joints and dollar stores — are clustered along certain strips.

Owings Mills and White Marsh have long been in the forefront of commercial growth efforts, but officials and merchants say the county's Main Streets need attention now.

It's not enough for one area to succeed, Pikesville Councilwoman Vicki Almond said. "If one fails, they all fail. Success breeds success. Blight breeds blight."

Almond said she plans to work more closely with local business leaders to improve commercial offerings. The county's overall economic development strategy includes building on Northwest Hospital and bringing a Walmart Supercenter to Liberty Road in Randallstown, creating an enterprise zone in Woodlawn to attract more federal agencies and promoting Hunt Valley as a high-tech corridor.

This week, the County Council approved creating a revitalization district in the heart of Perry Hall at Councilman David Marks' urging to give merchants more access to low-interest loans and other incentives.

Merchants in Perry Hall said the move is long overdue.

Veterinarian James Orrell, who started renovating his animal hospital three months ago, said he believes the revitalization program will reach many businesses.

"This program will incentivize business and property owners to improve their properties, whether it's giving them a facelift or whatever, and there's going to be a domino effect," Orrell said. "It's like when you choose a restaurant — are you going to choose a restaurant that looks pretty rough on the outside or looks attractive?"

Short-sighted growth philosophies, insufficient public investment, the flatlining economy, fickle shoppers — all have invariably been tagged as redevelopment barriers.

The success of Owings Mills and White Marsh — targeted by the county as growth zones in 1979 — came with unintended consequences, officials said.

The county did not intentionally neglect certain communities, but as Owings Mills and White Marsh grew, older commercial corridors struggled to compete, said Peirce Macgill, a county revitalization specialist. "We're one area, but what happens in one commercial area will have consequences in another."

As the landscape has evolved, the county's commercial revitalization strategy now includes a strong focus on older communities, he said.

"A Belair Road, an Eastern Boulevard, a Dundalk Avenue — they do need some extra attention," Macgill said.

Businesses and properties in commercial revitalization districts are typically hampered by small lot sizes, too few parking spaces, and high renovation and expansion costs, officials said.

Since the 1980s, the county has offered low-interest loans, streetscape improvements, tax credits and other incentives in areas covered by the revitalization program.

For example, the $1 million Pikesville redevelopment fund, created in 2007 to boost struggling properties, led to the creation of the thriving Mari Luna Latin Grill.

The success of Catonsville Gourmet was preceded by Ships Cafe Restaurant and Crab House, another seafood restaurant, which opened across the street in 2003.

Ships Cafe expanded the following year, more than doubling its size, which showed county officials there was an untapped market.

"Catonsville Gourmet cemented what we thought was the potential there and others followed," Macgill said. Since then, five more restaurants have opened on the same strip. "For a one-block area, that's pretty incredible."

Growing up, Dunworth said, he always wondered why Catonsville seemed to fly under the radar for commercial growth.

"Catonsville always had the demographics and everything it needed except for what people wanted," Dunworth said. "I just always knew that everybody in Catonsville always went somewhere else. There are a lot of landmark places here, but there weren't a lot of destination places."

Two years later, spurred by the success of Catonsville Gourmet, Dunworth opened another restaurant, Regions, this time with a county loan.

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