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Main Street shops struggle for business as usual


As construction workers with backhoes and jackhammers prepare to move down Main Street Annapolis this winter, shop owners are mapping strategies to help offset an expected drop in revenue while the street gets a face lift.

"Everyone is freaking out and wondering how we are going to do this," said Sharon Russian, president of the Annapolis Business Coalition and manager of a clothing store on Main Street. "But my attitude is that I'm going to embrace this. If we look at this with more of a festive and positive attitude, when it is done this place will look beautiful."

The rebricking and replacement of underground utilities on Main Street will begin in January. The street will be closed to traffic during the year-long, $5 million project and shop owners will offer extra services to customers to keep them coming in.

"The main thing is to let the customers know what is going to happen and to give them parking alternatives such as Gotts Court garage, which is the best-kept secret in Annapolis," said Larry Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing.

While Mr. Vincent's store offers delivery service in emergencies now, he said they will be offering free delivery to all customers during the construction period.

"And if necessary we can bring a selection of clothing from the store to a customer's home or office," he said.

Cynthia McBride, owner of McBride's Gallery and senior vice president of the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber plans on having a hot line for businesses to call when problems crop up.

"It's for rumor control and information," she said. "They can ask questions or relay the rumor and someone from the chamber will call the mayor or the construction engineer and find out the answer or correct information and then get back to the business owners."

Ms. McBride said she plans to do more mailings with color pictures to customers to let them know that they are still open during the construction and what is in the store.

"We will also be offering shipping or delivery," she said.

Ms. Russian said the Annapolis Business Coalition also is working on some slogans that can be used by business owners when they advertise.

"There is a lot of promotion that can be done, such as passing hard hats out to kids, shirts and buttons with slogans like 'I Dig Downtown' or I Dig Main Street,' " she said.

Emery Harrison, head of city public works, said the project is going to be done in two phases. The upper phase, from Conduit Street to Church Circle, and the lower one from Conduit Street to Green Street. City officials have not yet decided which one will be done first.

Shoppers will be encouraged to use the dozen or so alleys to get to Main street shops.

"We want to make this fun and encourage people to come to the businesses," he said. "We want people to think of it as using the back door to Main Street."

Mr. Harrison said he is thinking of having a large drawing painted on the side of a building that would show people what exactly is being done.

While city officials say they are dedicated to providing pedestrians access to the street, business owners are still worried about the expected decline in business that some say would range between 10 and 15 percent.

"I haven't talked to one person who isn't concerned," Ms. McBride said. "With small businesses, this is our livelihood. This is how we feed our families and send our children to college."

Besides offering extras to customers, such as extended hours, Mr. Vincent said, shop owners should talk with their banks and see if arrangements for loan payments can be made and also adjust the amount of new merchandise they buy for the next seasons.

While such measures will help ease the strain, customer loyalty is what merchants say they hope will carry them through.

Joyce Kaminkow, owner of Annapolis Country Store on Maryland Avenue said it was that type of loyalty that helped her get through the rebricking and reconstruction of State Circle four years ago.

"I had a customer tell me that she was here because she wanted to see us here when it was over," Ms. Kaminkow said. "I think that will be true of Main Street too. We felt we really good that the customers went out of their way to come into the store. We all managed to survive it."

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