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Downtown ponders its future Buildings are vacant in the historic district


The little shop next to Larry Vincent's menswear store in downtown Annapolis has stood empty for 18 months, a sign of the historic business district's troubled times.

A decade ago, when Maryland's capital was transformed into a tourist-choked vacation spot that became known as "Camelot on the Bay," a vacant store on Main Street would have been 'D snapped up in a flash.

But even though it's still a magnet for visitors, sailors and upwardly mobile professionals, Annapolis, like other communities in the nation, is struggling through the sour economy.

City business leaders say that Annapolis has to become more aggressive in recruiting and retaining companies to survive the downturn.

"Annapolis has always been very lucky. With its charm, the water, the high-income clientele, people were just dying to be here," said Penny Chandler, executive director of the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce.

But those days are gone, she said. In these leaner, tighter times, Annapolis has to fight back by marketing itself, offering incentives and streamlining the bureaucratic hurdles new businesses face.

The possibility of the county Circuit Court moving from Church Circle to another section of Annapolis has created a greater sense of urgency this summer over the future of the downtown.

Elected officials and business leaders, fearing that downtown restaurants and shops will be deserted, are petitioning the county to renovate the existing courthouse instead of moving into offices elsewhere.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and the City Council have emphasized their commitment to revitalizing the downtown economy. Mr. Hopkins has urged County Executive Robert R. Neall to keep the Circuit Court downtown, and the city has earmarked $53,000 to hire an economic development coordinator to map out a long-range strategy for attracting new business.

Ms. Chandler said she hopes the job description will include promoting the city, recruiting new businesses and solving problems to keep existing establishments happy.

"What we need is someone to be out there and also to act as a liaison with the existing business community," she said.

Alderman Dean Johnson, an Independent representing the city's Ward, agrees. When the council's Economic Matters Committee met Thursday night, he stressed that the city needs somebody "to get out there and pound on doors, not just man the visitor's center."

Downtown business owners who have seen better days often complain that the numerous rules and regulations enforced by the city's Historic District Commission are stifling. The five-member board, established in 1969 to protect the historic atmosphere of the city's restored Georgian architecture and brick streets, must approve everything from store signs to expansions.

Real-estate agents sometimes turn off prospective tenants by warning them about the commission and predicting opposition from downtown residents, Ms. Chandler said.

"If the city does not have the reputation of being easy to work with or cooperative, sometimes the business gets turned off and goes elsewhere," she said. "What we need is to be encouraging."

Mr. Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing, also believes that businesses should be lured to the city with parking incentives and other benefits instead of being driven away by warnings of a difficult bureaucratic process.

A Republican who ran against Mr. Hopkins in the 1989 mayoral race, Mr. Vincent blames the current administration for failing to develop a cohesive marketing plan. He said he's been approached by other historic cities, such as Nantucket, Mass., and believes Annapolis should do the same.

The city's historic preservationists have sided with efforts to keep the courthouse on Church Circle. But Sarah Filkins, director of preservation for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said concerns about attracting new business should not outweigh all other considerations.

Referring to a dispute over a frozen-yogurt shop that wants to lease a space at the City Dock, she said: "There are people who want to rent the stores. It's not a choice between the yogurt shop and vacant stores."

She and other city officials also have said that the downtown's economic problems sometimes appear exaggerated.

While there are more than a dozen empty stores on Main Street, she said, several are likely to be filled within the next months by tenants who are currently negotiating their leases.

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