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Annapolis laments loss of small-town business; Tourists' entrance spells end for longtime services in downtown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The way Tom Davies tells it, the quintessential American Main Street existed for decades just blocks from his downtown Annapolis home.

Everybody in town walked to Rookie's grocery store near the City Dock to buy Thanksgiving turkeys, up Main Street to Rite Aid for aspirin, and hardware and clothing stores -- even a gas station -- were among businesses downtown that provided day-to-day essentials.

Last month, a final vestige of that small-town past disappeared when Rite Aid shut down after 21 years in downtown Annapolis. The city's metamorphosis into Maryland's touristy sailing capital has entitled downtown property owners to high rents that chi-chi restaurants and T-shirt stores -- but not neighborhood drugstores -- can well afford.

"Annapolis is kind of under siege, to the point that it's no longer a functioning town but it's kind of an amusement park," lamented Davies, 52, who has lived three blocks from Main Street since 1972. "It's now a tourist destination rather than a place that people live."

While Annapolitans are glad their city is thriving, many wish there could be a balance between keeping Annapolis successful and ensuring that residents can live in it comfortably.

City officials have tried to achieve this balance by curbing the encroachment of businesses -- for example, limiting the number of bars that can stay open until 2 a.m. But with the Dec. 11 closing of Rite Aid, Davies and others wonder if officials shouldn't do more.

"I feel sorry for the elderly people" who live in downtown Annapolis, said Jean Chance, whose husband's family has owned W.R. Chance Jewelers on Main Street since 1949. "They won't be able to walk to get any of the services they need now. You have to get in your car and drive five miles away if you want to get a prescription or even bottled aspirin."

Ambience lost

The city lost its down-home ambience over the years as grocery stores that once flourished downtown folded, Annapolitans say, but the big change came in the 1980s when the historic district and sailing events began reeling in tourists and commercial rents downtown skyrocketed.

Bill Greenfield, a lifetime Annapolitan and a real estate agent who has leased many Main Street stores, said rents downtown in the 1960s were about $9 or $10 a square foot. By the time Banana Republic and The Gap moved into their City Dock locations in the early 1980s, rents were $30 or $40 a square foot. Some downtown properties now command as much as $50 a square foot, Greenfield said.

"You can just about count on one hand the remaining independent operators downtown, and most of them own their own buildings," he said. "None of them are paying the high-dollar rents. That's the key."

Greenfield should know -- his family owned Peerless Clothing at 141 Main St. from 1937 to 1990, when a real estate agent brought by a potential tenant "who was willing to pay me more money in rent than I was making in my business."

Avoca Handweavers, a store selling Irish hand-loomed clothing, occupies his family's old store.

A need for space

Susan K. Zellers, city economic director, said high rents aren't the only deterrents to groceries and drugstores. Some national chains have chosen the city's outskirts over Main Street because the downtown stores are too small.

"It's one of the worst problems that downtowns have," Zellers said. "The bottom line is, you've got to have larger square footage."

Grocery and drugstore chains want 20,000 or 30,000 square feet, and most Main Street stores are in the 1,000- to 3,000-square-foot range, Greenfield said. The largest property on Main Street is Hopkins Furniture, which has 20,000 square feet over three stories.

And Spencer Hopkins, 70, whose family has owned the store at 123 Main St. for 75 years, is not interested in renting. He said real estate agents and business owners have made inquiries.

It has been tempting to sell out to a business "that pays a lot of money to help Spencer Hopkins," he said. "But we've got a lot of history invested in this."

Hopkins said he was sorry to see other original businesses go. The Woolworth's at the top of Main Street and the A&P; near the City Dock disappeared decades ago, and Rookie's shut down in the early 1990s.

"People are always saying, 'Gee, I wish it was like it used to be,' " Hopkins said. "But the supermarkets aren't there any more because of one reason -- people didn't go to them. It ain't ever going to be like it used to be, unless you make it productive enough so 'it used to be' never leaves."

Decreasing profits

Decreasing profits are the reason Rite Aid officials give for leaving Main Street for the 11,000-square-foot location on Taylor Avenue near the U.S. Naval Academy Stadium the company bought in November.

Rite Aid has the lease on the 3,700-square-foot Main Street store until August 2001 and will sublet it to Bayfront Sportswear Feb. 1.

Zellers and Greenfield said they are scouting for a drugstore for Main Street. Other cities that have fought to keep such stores in high-rent downtown areas have succeeded with help from state agencies and high-level government officials.

Molly Lambert, Vermont's commerce secretary, said towns have faced difficulties similar to Annapolis'. That state's governor flew to Arkansas to offer Wal-Mart officials financial breaks if they chose sites in downtown areas instead of in the suburbs. Last year, Wal-Mart opened in the heart of Rutland, Vermont's second-largest city.

Sense of frustration

"I would like to see City Hall and the economic development [office] take a more aggressive approach in dealing with the problems that we have downtown," said Alderman Louise Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat who represents downtown Annapolis. "They ought to be out talking to any [drugstore chains] they can get ahold of."

Hammond said a 1993 study showed that some residents were moving out of Ward 1 because "they've gotten frustrated with what they see downtown becoming. The biggest issue for residents is the quality of life, and if that's not given enough weight on the scale at City Hall --"

City Hall, Davies said, needs to recognize that bringing in amenities will keep the residents who make the downtown area -- and Annapolis -- a community of real people.

Washington's "Georgetown has become a regional entertainment center. We don't need to be that," Davies said. "That's not what we want to grow up to be."

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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