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Downtown Mount Airy is beginning to perk up


A year ago, Mayor Gerald Johnson was worried about the future of Mount Airy's Main Street.

Several downtown businesses had closed or moved to shopping centers, leaving vacant storefronts in the heart of town.

Now, Mr. Johnson says he has reason to believe things are looking up.

A Seattle lawyer is planning to open a microbrewery and restaurant in the old firehouse, which has been empty 2 1/2 years. Maria's Restaurant, which closed five years ago, reopened in December under the same ownership. By the end of the month, a bookstore is scheduled to open in a renovated Main Street building.

"It looks much better," Mayor Johnson said of Mount Airy's Main Street.

In addition to the changes already in place, a consultant is studying Mount Airy's downtown, along with the other main streets in the county's municipalities, to determine how to promote economic development in the towns. A $43,000 state grant is paying for the project and each of the county's eight towns contributed $1,000 to the effort.

The Baltimore-based consulting firm, the Chesapeake Group, is meeting with Carroll and town officials, and conducting opinion surveys of residents.

"Someone coming in from the outside can sometimes be a positive thing in terms of making changes," Mr. Johnson said.

Perhaps the most anticipated addition to Mount Airy's downtown is the microbrewery and restaurant planned to open in the old firehouse on Main Street.

Reid Allison, a lawyer in Seattle, has a contract to buy the building -- one of the largest in Mount Airy's downtown.

Plans to open the microbrewery have been delayed while Mr. Allison tries to secure financing for the project. He said he is talking with two "very interested" potential investors.

He said a feasibility study of the firehouse building revealed that it will require more renovations than originally anticipated.

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Allison is optimistic about the project and looking forward to doing business in downtown Mount Airy.

"I think certainly the market potential is there," he said.

Bob Hilton, the real estate agent handling the sale of the firehouse, said the possibility of the microbrewery opening on Main Street has increased interest in commercial sites downtown.

He said the amount of available rental space has decreased from 36,000 square feet to 20,000 over the past year.

"I don't know whether it's cause and effect, but I really believe a lot of it has to do with anticipation," Mr. Hilton said.

"You have to have something to bring people in or the town will die," Mr. Hilton said. "New Market did it with antique shops."

Jim Hopfer, owner of H & H Electronics, said the microbrewery project influenced his decision to move his business from a local shopping center to the old True Value hardware store, across the street from the proposed microbrewery. He plans to be open for business in his new location by April 1.

Mr. Hopfer said he's hoping that customers from the restaurant will notice his business across the street.

Another new addition to the Main Street business scene is Whistlestop Books, scheduled to open by the end of the month in the old Frederick Underwriters Insurance Co. building at 8 S. Main St.

"I like old things," bookstore owner Anne Dorsey said of her decision to locate her shop in Mount Airy's downtown.

"It's just charming and quaint and inviting and warm and friendly," she said.

Business owners agree that if it is to thrive, Mount Airy's downtown must offer something unique that visitors can't find in a shopping center or mall.

"What we have to focus on is making the old section of town a destination point so people can come and spend the afternoon here," Ms. Dorsey said.

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