Main St. merchants flee as construction nears


The bulldozers, jackhammers and construction crews haven't arrived yet, but already merchants are moving out of shops on Annapolis' historic Main Street rather than face the disruptions that reconstruction of the thoroughfare will cause.

"I never thought I would leave Main Street," said Mary Slidell, a co-owner of The Giant Peach, a children's clothing shop. "But we couldn't have stayed on Main Street and paid our rent and stayed in business."

At least six stores on Main Street already have closed or moved, and several more are expected to vacate in the coming weeks.

Next month, Ms. Slidell will move out of her 1920s building and into a brightly lighted modern store in West Annapolis with plenty of parking.

Several other merchants are fearful that the construction project, which will close parts of the street to car traffic for at least a year, will put them out of business.

Nothing sits in the window of several Main Street storefronts but "For Rent" signs. The clothing stores Laura Ashley, Why Knot and Todo Mundo all closed recently. Kathleen's Bed and Bath, a home store, and Graphic Traffic, a consignment gallery, also are closed.

Some business owners said they chose not to renew their leases because of general troubles brought by the winter lull, the draw of large malls surrounding the city and the lack of downtown parking.

City officials note that the demand for real estate remains high on Main Street, where there are about 70 businesses. At least 50 percent of the now-vacant stores already have been rented to new tenants, said Mary Burkholder, the city's economic development director.

"Even in this period of time there's still a lot of interest and people are willing to tough it out," Ms. Burkholder said.

Nevertheless, the city is asking for $10,000 for fiscal year 1996 to attract business development on Main Street. And the city is promoting a guaranteed loan program in which shopkeepers can borrow up to $5,000.

Construction will lead to the closing of the lower half of Main Street to car traffic until fall and the upper half until December. The project's contractor, Fort Myer Construction Corp. of Washington, is expected to break ground on the project by late March, city officials say.

Some Annapolis merchants are familiar with concerns like those about Main Street.

Rusty Romo, owner of Harry Browne's restaurant, said he nearly lost his business in 1990 when the city rebricked State Circle for eight months. One day his building had no power or water, and the next its exterior was wrapped in a protective layer of black plastic, he said.

Mr. Romo's restaurant sits on the circle just a few steps from the State House, but the political crowd didn't come near it.

"They'd go eat lunch where they wouldn't have to worry about getting their suits dirty or dodging a bulldozer or listening to a jackhammer when they're trying to get lunch," he said.

Such stories leave Main Street merchants anxious.

"I think pretty much everybody is really scared," said Molly McConnell, a manager at It's A Breeze, a T-shirt shop at the foot of Main Street. The shop cannot move because it needs tourist traffic, yet summertime construction will drive those visitors away, she said.

Joan Chiaramonte, owner of Why Knot, vacated that Annapolis shop earlier this winter and is setting up a store in Sanibel Island, Fla. But she still pays rent in Annapolis and plans to reopen the shop once the bulldozers leave. "I think there's going to be a lot more interest in Main Street when this is over," she said. "I'm definitely coming back."

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