The "NO TRESPASSING" sign hanging on the doors of the Enchanted Forest amusement park, Howard County's longtime children's attraction, will remain in place for at least another year -- leaving businesses in a nearby shopping center adrift without an anchor attraction.
Officials of Towson-based JHP Development Inc., owner of the park and its namesake shopping center, said last week that the Ellicott City theme park will not reopen this year.
Jeffrey Pechter -- who bought the park and its surrounding 32 acres along U.S. 40 in 1988 for more than $4.5 million -- declined to comment further on the park's status last week.
The park last opened briefly in 1994. That has left nearby business owners -- once dependent on the hundreds of families that trekked through the theme park each week -- working to reinvent the shopping center to remain economically viable.
"We have to stop planning our future around the theme park and figure out how to market ourselves. We have to rethink our strategy," said Wil Rich, owner of Jilly's Restaurant in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center. The strip mall opened in 1992, just east of the theme park.
The park -- which served as a backdrop for an episode of NBC's "Homicide" program that aired this year -- has been a magnet for area children since it opened in 1954 with its bigger-than-life figures taken from well-known Mother Goose stories. It closed in 1986 but reopened briefly in May 1994.
The future of the park is a hot topic for customers of the shopping center, business owners say. And there have been some unfounded rumors.
The most-often repeated one involves Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks offering to take over operation of the park, or maybe even turn it into a miniature golf course. "That's incorrect," said Jeffrey A. Bourne, the department's director. "There's no truth to that rumor whatsoever."
The park's closing has already hurt some businesses in the shopping center. Some catering specifically to children -- a candy store, a comic book shop and an ice cream parlor -- have gone out of business.
Owners of the other two dozen or so nearby businesses are trying to avoid being swallowed by the problems created by the vacant park, said restaurant owner Rich. They are banking on the customer draw of the Safeway supermarket on the east end of the shopping center.
"The way strip malls are built in Howard County, we are so far from the main road we can't attract people directly. We have to wait for customers to drive into the shopping center," Rich said.
The park simply serves as a landmark now, helping former visitors and passers-by find the businesses because they remember the castlelike building, said Al Lichaa, owner of Enchanted Cleaners.
While the shopping center's original businesses are searching for ways to survive, some new businesses are moving in. An Eastern Savings Bank opened a few months ago, and a realty office is about to open, filling spaces left vacant by failed businesses.
But the complex's restaurants are struggling the most to reorganize, said Mat Hall, owner of Little Alexander's Restaurant, one of the original tenants.
The closing of the park "has really put a hurting on our business," Hall said. "I am definitely disappointed in the Enchanted Forest."
He used to cater 20 or 30 pizza parties a day for children going to or coming from the park. Now, Hall said. "Our lunch business is doing horrible."
Jilly's Restaurant also once catered to families. But more recently, the restaurant has been transformed into a sports bar with multiple televisions showing various athletic events and sports memorabilia decorating the wall, owner Rich said.
Answers are few when potential tourists call Enchanted Forest Family Dentistry to inquire about the park's hours of operation, reservation policy or location, said Dr. Ann Zinger, one of the dentists.
Because there is no longer a phone listing for the park, when callers dial information, "there's a 50-50 chance of getting our number," Zinger said. "Sometimes they know we are a dentist office, but call anyway to ask about the theme park."
As soon as spring arrives, dental receptionist Tammy Martellini starts fielding calls, mainly from Washington, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania. As many as 70 potential park visitors can call on a Saturday, she said.
Said Zinger: "If I had to do it again, I would not name my business after the Enchanted Forest."
Pub Date: 5/20/96