Annapolitans grow uneasy over tourism


At The Frozen Orchard, two little boys press their noses against the glass counter, a couple waits patiently in line for exotic flavors and the 17-year-old counter girl in an apple-green apron heaps on hot fudge.

The sound of children's laughter competes with the gentle whir of the giant blender used to mix plain frozen yogurt with everything from fresh strawberries to thin mints. The flavors can run a little wild, but the atmosphere inside the frozen yogurt parlor is pure Americana.

Yet in a strange twist, this small shop on the edge of Annapolis has suddenly become the center of a sticky debate over the future of the city's downtown.

At odds are millions in tourist dollars and something much less quantifiable -- the historic city's unique identity and charm.

Maryland's capital is still a little uneasy with its transformation from a down-at-the-heels fishing village into a tourist-choked museum of Georgian architecture. The city wants the economic development. But at the same time, the historic preservationists and residents who fought to carefully restore Annapolis fear it could soon resemble a seaside tourist town.

Downtown residents have complained this summer about a proliferation of neon signs in the T-shirt shops and ice-cream parlors lining Main Street. Their fears about this "boardwalking effect" were echoed in a series of public hearings on various business proposals, including The Frozen Orchard's plans to open a second shop near the City Dock.

"Frankly, I don't want to become a remote food court for the mall," said Craig Purcell, a downtown architect, during a hearing Monday night on the yogurt shop.

Added Mike Langrehr, president of the Ward One Residents' Association, "I think the view of most residents it what makes Annapolis a charming place to visit is a delicate mix of some different stores -- artsy stores, clothing stores, art galleries and some very fine restaurants. We have a very attractive waterfront and we have the state government and the Naval Academy. It's a delicate balance."

He believes that balance is being tipped by the tourism industry. More than 4 million visitors come to Annapolis each year, and the picturesque City Dock is swamped on weekends with tourists and day-trippers.

But the association has been sharply criticized for trying to put the brakes on development at a time when the city's economic future appears troubled. Not only are there a dozen empty stores on Main Street, but both the District and Circuit Courts are eyeing property outside the city limits.

City leaders have also whispered for months that Anne Arundel Medical Center may leave town, though hospital officials deny it.

Maurice B. Tose, president of Telecommunications Systems, a company that has offices on Randall Street near the proposed yogurt shop, faulted both the civic association and Alderman John Hammond, a staunch Republican conservative who represents the historic district.

"As I see it, there's some major flaws here to the way business is being conducted. What charm is there in vacant buildings?" he asked.

Editorials have been written attacking the residents association as a small, noisy, self-interested bunch of "neo-prohibitionists." And private jokes have abounded along the lines of "a frozen yogurt shop? Well, there goes the neighborhood."

Mr. Hammond has defended the civic association as representing "a perfectly legitimate point of view" and insists that many of the problems will be resolved with a long-range plan for the downtown. A committee studying the historic district for the last 2 1/2 years is expected to present a report to the City Council in September.

Preliminary recommendations of the Ward One Sector Study include: replacing the metered parking at the harbor with a garage and creating a waterside park; lifting restrictions on restaurant space; extending residential parking hours and running shuttles from a visitor's kiosk into the city.

Hunter Interests Inc., real-estate economists hired by the city to study the downtown, found that the retail market is split 50-50 among tourists and area residents. That should help guarantee a mix of stores and restaurants catering to both visitors and locals, said Mary Burkholder, the city's chief of economic development.

But business leaders are concerned that the report is being used to hold off new development. "It appears that using the sector study is a good way to say, 'Let's wait, " said Penny Chandler, president of the Annapolis Chamber of Commerce.

Others fear that downtown residents have dictated the study with a nervous eye on traffic, noise and trash. Many long-time Annapolis residents have greeted the shift toward expensive boutiques, fern bars and souvenir shops with dismay. They're also fed up with the noise from the downtown bars, said Sarah Filkens, head of preservation for the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Mr. Langrehr and other residents say they're perfectly aware that the multimillion-dollar tourism industry is important to the city. They also deny having an undue influence on the downtown study.

What they fear is what the mayor sees in the city's future. A third-generation Annapolitan, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins remembers a time when a family could buy everything from groceries to tools walking up Main Street. But those days are gone, he said.

"Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that Main Street is going to be primarily there to eat, drink and buy a souvenir," he said.

Mr. Hammond said he believes that more tourist shops and snack-food stores will hurt the city in the long run. "Those who criticize the Ward 1 residents and Historic Foundation the loudest have benefited the most through their success," he said. "They're attacking the goose that lays the golden egg."

As the debate continues, this summer's wave of tourists has descended on Annapolis. The city continues to be a popular destination for families visiting the Naval Academy and young people who meet in the downtown bars, said Herman Schieke, executive director of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

On sunny afternoons, many people stroll around the dock eating ice cream or frozen yogurt. Come fall, they may be able to try something new -- a banana twist or coffee cream -- from The Frozen Orchard. The council will vote on the shop Sept. 24.

But the issue won't stop with the store. "The question is how do we balance everything so that we continue to be an attractive area," Mr. Langrehr said.

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