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Meeting called 'beginning' on problems of downtown Participants discuss need to avoid acrimony of many past debates


A diverse group of downtown interests gathered at City Hall last night to seek consensus on some of the most contentious issues facing Annapolis.

Although the meeting did not end with any specific solutions, participants said it was at least a start.

"Tonight is the beginning, hopefully, of an ongoing dialogue," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who called the meeting as chairman of the City Council Economic Matters Committee.

At the meeting, about 15 people -- ranging from residents to downtown business owners to historic preservationists -- steered clear of hot-button issues facing the historic district. Instead, they discussed the city's need to put aside the acrimony that has marked many debates over development in the past.

"Probably what we'll find as we go around the room is we're all singing off the same page," said Historic District Commission chairman Donna Ware. "We're all frustrated with watching the constant battle zones going on and hard lines drawn in the sand."

The meeting comes as the city council considers several key development issues for Annapolis, including a proposal for more late-night bars in the historic district, a measure creating a conference center on the West Street corridor, legislation for permanent sidewalk cafes downtown and a bill that would create a financing authority for large-scale development projects.

Several participants said Annapolis needs to agree on a "vision" for the future that would keep the city economically viable and preserve its historic allure.

"We may have found the perfect moment to do that," said Gilbert Renaut, who heads the Ward One Residents' Association.

Meanwhile, some city officials are wondering how stories about downtown tensions are playing out beyond the city's limits.

"Image truly is everything," said Mary Burkholder, the city's economic development director. She said a business prospect from the Midwest was considering a move to Annapolis but grew nervous after hearing about conflicts between some downtown businesses and residents.

"He wanted to know if that was true or was it just perception," Ms. Burkholder said. "If somebody from the Midwest knew about this, you kind of wonder, what is the perception out there?"

Other people accused aldermen of bringing issues before focus groups and ordering community-based studies, only to ignore their recommendations.

"The fact of the matter is, they sit on a shelf," said Tom Negri, general manager of Loews Annapolis Hotel. "We shouldn't waste people's time doing these studies if they're not going to be used."

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