Mayor seeks to put Mount Airy's Main Street on road to recovery


Mayor Gerald Johnson is looking for some creative ways to bring life back to Mount Airy's downtown.

Once the commercial heart of town, Main Street is dotted with vacant storefronts. Many customers who once patronized the downtown shops have taken their business to surrounding shopping centers.

Mr. Johnson has decided to form an economic development committee to explore making changes aimed at bringing people back to Main Street.

He is inviting business owners and residents to come to a meeting at 8 p.m. March 10 at the Town Hall if they are interested on serving on the committee.

"We want to look at the economic impact of getting new businesses into Mount Airy and also trying to keep businesses that are here," Mr. Johnson said.

"I'm hoping there's enough drive and interest from the business community to make up the committee."

On a larger scale, the county is applying for a grant from the state's Main Street Improvement Program to hire a consultant who would work with the county's eight municipalities for a year to develop downtown revitalization plans.

The total grant application is for $65,000. The county has requested $20,000 from the state and has agreed to contribute $33,000 toward the consultant's salary. The towns would make up the remaining $12,000, said Michille Hyde, the county grants office administrator.

"Carroll County main streets are in various phases of the revitalization trend," Ms. Hyde said. "Sykesville is advanced, but several municipalities haven't been able to market their main street areas as successfully."

There's no doubt that some Main Street business owners in Mount Airy are interested in seeing some changes.

This month, some downtown business people asked Mr. Johnson to make sure that state troopers strictly enforce the town's two-hour parking limit on Main Street.

Besides the scarcity of parking, some shop owners say, thnarrow street keeps customers away.

Ron Bohn, who with his wife, Marlene, owns Bohns' Furniture and Appliances Main Street Video, said that a few years ago he saw a woman's car door knocked off by a passing pickup truck on Main Street.

"I'm sure that woman never came back," said Mr. Bohn, a Main Street businessman for 23 years.

The parking problem led to Dave Brocato's decision in 1989 to close his restaurant on Main Street. He still runs a catering business but is thinking about moving from downtown Mount Airy.

"My lease is up at the end of the year," he said. "If I can find a place, I'll be gone."

One of Mr. Johnson's main concerns is the number of businesses that have left downtown recently.

In the past year, the Frederick Underwriters insurance companmoved from Main Street to the Twin Arch shopping center, and the True Value hardware store went out of business.

The town Fire Department and the library also left their Main Street buildings. The town office moved to the old library, but the other three buildings are vacant.

"Once they leave the downtown it's very difficult to replace them," Mr. Johnson said.

Some downtown business owners say several potential buyers have been discouraged from coming downtown because of the work and expense required to bring the buildings up to code.

"How can you put ramps for the handicapped in these old buildings?" Marlene Bohn asked.

Mr. Johnson said he hopes to explore that issue with the economic development committee.

With these old buildings, it's cost-prohibitive to tear them down and rebuild, and it's also cost-prohibitive to go in and retrofit," he said.

The mayor said he thinks the future of Mount Airy's downtown is in attracting more specialty shops.

"I believe they [downtown businesses] have to have something unique to offer people," he said.

Bob Robertson, president of the Greater Mount Airy Business Association, said he agrees with the mayor's assessment. Mr. Robertson is a financial planner with the Investment Center, which has an office downtown.

He suggested that having shuttle buses at area malls to bring people to Main Street might help to address the parking problem. Mr. Robertson said that concept has worked well for festivals and fairs held in downtown Mount Airy.

"There's no question that the economic development of downtown Mount Airy calls for some creative solutions," Mr. Robertson said. "If the towns have an interest in fostering their own development, it's going to have to come from them."

Some business owners aren't optimistic that any substantive changes will come out of Mr. Johnson's committee.

"It's just a change in the times," Mr. Bohn said. "Eventually, I think all the old towns will disappear."

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