Plans for redevelopment in downtown Towson have prompted area merchants to consider face-lifts of their own, spurring renewed interest in a Baltimore County program for commercial revitalization.
To keep up with projects that will bring new stores, restaurants and residences to Towson's core, several York Road businesses are working through county programs that offer design advice from architects and interest-free loans for exterior improvements.
"They know that things are changing, so they want to take advantage of the change so that all boats will rise with this tide of change," said Andrea Van Arsdale, director of the county's Department of Planning.
Businesses located in the county's 16 commercial revitalization districts, which range from Arbutus to Reisterstown to Dundalk, are eligible for 10 free hours of professional design services from an architect, interest-free loans of up to $30,000 for exterior improvements, or five- or 10-year commercial revitalization tax credits.
There's been strong interest in the storefront program, which is designed to help businesses in aging commercial corridors with that critical first impression. The planning department took over the program, which dates to the 1990s, from the economic development department as part of a 2012 reorganization.
Sixteen small businesses have turned to the "Architect on Call" service over the past two years for projects in Catonsville, Essex, Nottingham, Parkville, Pikesville, Randallstown, Reisterstown, Towson and Woodlawn, said Fronda Cohen, a county spokeswoman. Funds for the service come from larger architectural contracts with the county's Department of Public Works.
"Right now, there's a lot in the pipeline," said Troy Leftwich, a commercial revitalization specialist in the planning department. And he expects activity to pick up this spring.
The Melting Pot in Towson plans to update its front from a "Western town look" with an outdated awning to a new flatstone front with a colorful pitch roof, said Jeff Nichols, co-owner of the restaurant.
After getting help from an architect on the design, Nichols is preparing his loan applications. Because the Melting Pot takes up two storefront addresses, each is eligible for a loan. The rest of the project, which Nichols said would cost more than $100,000, will be privately financed.
The improvements not only will help the restaurant keep up with the area's renaissance but participate in it, he said.
"Me making my little investment [before] wouldn't have changed the landscape of the town," Nichols said. "When you see major investment, now I'm going to put my dollar forward. It's hard to chase after something that seems to be declining, but I feel like it's made a turn. It's definitely on the climb now."
Towson's district is made up of the downtown core, plus the York Road corridor up to the Beltway. Besides the Melting Pot, art supply store Plaza and a building housing a 7-Eleven are in various stages of participation in the building improvement program, said Laurie Hay, the planning department's central sector coordinator, during a recent meeting of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.
Consultations with architects allow business owners to see their property's potential and gives them a firm estimate of the costs, Leftwich said.
"It's one thing to get a pretty picture," he said. "It's another to get the numbers."
County and state loan programs for commercial improvements came under scrutiny last summer when the Greene Turtle in Towson used such loans to build a rooftop deck and expand its street entrance.
In addition to a $240,000 state loan, the Greene Turtle borrowed $30,000 from the county to improve its façade.
That was one of two such no-interest loans the county has approved since 2012, Cohen said. While managed by the planning department, the loans come from the Department of Economic and Workforce Development's revolving business loan fund. The county has approved a total of 136 loans since 2004, according to a county portfolio report.
The second of the two most recent loans was approved last year for the redevelopment of the Pikes Theatre in Pikesville as part of a larger package that included state funding. The Reisterstown Road theater, which operated from 1938 to 1984, reopened as a two-screen community cinema in November with a restaurant, Pikes Cinema Bar and Grill in the back half of the Art Deco building.
"I see a renaissance in Pikesville and more and more people coming back and shopping there," said Ira Miller, who operates the theater, which he leases from the owner who redeveloped it. "I think the theater will make a big difference. It's helped the restaurants; you can tell. One business could be the catalyst of what could happen down there."
The Greene Turtle's owners said they committed to improving their buildings to keep up with the swell of development in Towson.
That includes a 15-screen Cinemark movie theater to anchor Towson Square, an $85 million development featuring eight restaurants located just east of the Towson roundabout. In addition, Caves Valley Partners announced last year that the $300 million Towson Row project off York Road will include retail and residential. Towson Commons, which Nichols said he has long referred to as "the big white elephant across the street," is being renovated to include an LA Fitness gym and several new street-level restaurants.
Improvements would be especially important to businesses on the east side of York Road, given the work being done to restore Towson Commons' prominence, said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.
Van Arsdale said the assistance programs complement private investment on both a large and small scale. Besides the pending improvements and The Greene Turtle's renovation, other businesses are improving storefronts on their own, Van Arsdale said.
The Subway at East Chesapeake Avenue and York Road recently upgraded its exterior, and the vacant storefront at Pennsylvania Avenue and York Road will become a Wells Fargo bank branch. The former Recher Theatre space will reopen this month as Torrent Lounge with a fresh facade.
The county program also played a role over the years in the steady revitalization of Frederick Road, Catonsville's "Main Street," said Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. New restaurants have opened over the past few years, and the renaissance is continuing, she said, with projects such as an orthopedic medical practice under construction and a pet shop planning to move into remodeled space in the front of a veterinary hospital, also on Frederick Road.
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Owners of Mellor on Mews retail center on Mellor Avenue, just off Frederick Road, are turning to the county for help in sprucing up tenants' facades for the first time since the former warehouse was redeveloped in the 1990s, said Ashley Chertkof, an adviser with Sperry Van Ness Realsite Commercial Group, which is leasing the center.
"It's looking a little tired, and the colors are dated," said Chertkof, whose family owns the three buildings with a dozen retail and service tenants, including a pizza shop and the Home Anthology furniture store. "We're working with the county architect to come up with a better scheme."
Improvements will include new signage, awnings and planters, in a project designed to "increase our occupancy and make a better product for the tenants," Chertkof said.
Such investment has helped make Frederick Road more walkable and helped attract new businesses, Cary said.
"If they come into a community and see a lot of positive activity and buildings are well-kept," she said, "they know the customers will be there."