Annapolis, a town that has capitalized on its distinctive sense of the past, is trying to chart its future and finding the sailing choppy. The city steers toward tourism and is buffeted by historic preservationists and other residents who fear the state capital will become an emporium of tackiness. It veers the other way and runs into the protests of merchants who see the death of downtown in every vacant storefront.
Which way to go? Like a navigator caught between two tempests, the city must find a middle course. A tourist industry does not have to mean boardwalk-style shops and arcades. Nor does preservation mean turning Annapolis into a museum.
Preservationists have been criticized as stiff-necked neo-prohibitionists for opposing an innocuous yogurt shop, the display of a Spiderman poster outside a comics shop and neon signs. But they have a point. Their city is being overtaken by T-shirt stores, fudge shops and ice cream parlors. The old businesses -- clothing shops, hardware stores, groceries -- are closing. Imagine what Main Street would look like if every store sported huge posters, banners or flashing colored lights.
And yet, those who want to preserve old Annapolis must accept that the city is a tourist town and businesses will spring up to serve those visitors. All its prettiness, all its preservation would amount to nothing if business dried up. As one merchant said, "What charm is there in vacant buildings?"
The secret to Annapolis' future lies in forging an economic identity without sacrificing its historic character. The city should enforce zoning laws to prevent unsightly signs and storefronts. It should make a serious effort to attract and encourage a mix of businesses.
Finally, the Historic District Commission must be willing to compromise. Soon it will decide on a county proposal to expand the Circuit Courthouse in the heart of the historic district, instead of building a new one elsewhere. It is a decision of vast importance to downtown merchants, because of all the people employed by and summoned to the county court.
The commission should think hard about the consequences of rejecting this expansion, a project that means far more to the future of Annapolis than the little yogurt shop it recently fought so desperately to keep out.