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Annapolis may open downtown visitors center


More tourists and day-trippers flocking to Annapolis could park their cars and walk to the harbor under a proposal to open a visitors center in a historic house next to the Gotts Court &L; Garage.

In a move that could ease downtown traffic congestion, a committee has targeted a Colonial-era house in the first block of West Street for the visitors center. The house backs onto the 540-space garage under construction behind the Arundel Center.

The chalk brick house, leased until recently by Gaines McHale Antiques Ltd., is ideally suited because it is within steps of Church Circle, said Charles Lamb, a retired architect and co-chairman of the city's Visitors Center Committee.

"One of the key advantages is that it would serve as an intercept lot for the traffic coming into Annapolis," he said. "It's a historically significant building, and it would really orient visitors to the atmosphere and feel of downtown Annapolis."

Tourism has become an economic cornerstone for the city, but traffic from the estimated 4.5 million visitors a year has long bothered downtown residents. Especially in the summer and on weekends, Main Street and City Dock teem with tourists browsing in boutiques and eating in trendy restaurants.

The city has been searching for a parking lot to intercept and reduce traffic and an accessible location for a visitors center, City Administrator Michael Mallinoff said. The house on West Street appears to meet both needs, he said.

Built between 1767 and 1770, the two-story house is now in bankruptcy proceedings and under the ownership of Nations Bank.

The house has a long and colorful history, which is carefully charted by the non-profit Historic Annapolis Foundation. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are said to have slept there after the first owner died and his wife rented out rooms.

Preliminary plans call for installing signs on Rowe Boulevard to direct traffic to the Gotts Court Garage. Tourists could pull into the short-term parking lot, then walk to the center, pick up information on the city and park for the day in the garage.

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau would lease about half the space, with the U.S. Naval Academy, Historic Annapolis Foundation and other groups providing pamphlets and displays in another room. The house is big enough to allow room for the city to lease office space there, which Mr. Mallinoff said it might do.

"Nothing's definite," Mr. Lamb cautioned, saying the visitors bureau is looking at another space for a center, and the committee is comparing the spot with three alternatives.

But he said he's "quite impressed with this as a way of getting Annapolis off a subject they've wrestled with for many years."

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