Quiet enough to drive a locomotive through


TAKE A WALK down Main Street in Westminster, the central part where Railroad Avenue cuts through the Carroll County seat. Here, trains still roll over the tracks on that aptly named street, halting traffic.

That's a sign that Westminster clings to its small town roots; the "city" is still small enough to put up with the minor inconvenience of the occasional passing train, without spending a million dollars to reroute the tracks.

Remember, it wasn't long ago that towns across the country fought to keep trains running through their communities. It underlined a town's economic prosperity and importance that a train still visited it.

But the penetrating sound of the train's air horn as it creeps through Westminster is heard only once or twice a day now.

Commerce is, in fact, less bothered by the train's crossing than the endless string of traffic lights along downtown (but still narrow) Main Street.

Main Street's telling signs

Main Street itself offers more telling signs of Westminster's growth and change, some positive, some negative.

The modern library, with landscaped minipark in front, demonstrates Carroll's dedication to literacy and information. It's the only working "official" or government building on the stretch.

A block away is the former U.S. Post Office, closed since last summer in the postal agency's move to a new building on the outskirts, an auto trip away for nearly every patron.

The brick building on the grassy rise served for decades as both postal facility and downtown marker. Its future is uncertain, with limited commercial interest.

There's nothing against Westminster, the postal agency says. It's just that a large building with ample parking for trucks and patrons was needed. Where else to build but on open land in an established business park?

Beans and olive oil

But the Postal Service was in no hurry to get a downtown substation as a replacement, despite well-publicized gaffes in constructing the new facility and despite early and repeated pleas from city fathers.

After whining about the cost of providing such a public service, the agency finally gave its stamp of approval this month to a Main Street deli, with a postal counter back by the cannellini beans and olive oil.

Across from the vacant post office is the vacant volunteer fire company quarters, an even more imposing stone edifice topped by the signature clock tower. The volunteers moved into a new $5 million facility off Main Street to meet their growing needs. The new complex allows for faster response, which is what we all want, without having to freeze Main Street traffic.

The departure from Main Street is not unwelcome. The vacancy may be short-lived, as developer David Max moves to renovate and lease the spaces to tax-paying businesses.

Why didn't they shop?

The much lamented demise of the century-old T.W. Mather & Sons department store -- if people loved it so much, why didn't they shop there? -- across from the library is another sign of downtown change.

The one-stop, downtown general store is a fading institution. Automobile America expects to shop in the outlying mega-stores or in true specialty shops. The expanding local music store that took over the Mather premises is a prime example.

The central blocks of Main Street exhibit a truly eclectic approach to the (much-discussed) Westminster downtown revitalization efforts.

Among the Main Street establishments are a used car lot, a tattoo parlor, two second-hand stores, a biker leather shop, a genealogy bookstore and a day-care center. At least, as someone said last year, there's something more than just another bank office.

Lifesaver that wasn't

Ouch! That remark causes a lot of hurt these days. Carroll County Bank & Trust Co. was seen as the lifesaver for downtown, with a $6 million plan to build a headquarters, office rental space and multi-tier parking garage at the one-acre site of the former Farmer's Supply Co. The local bank was swallowed last month by a North Carolina bank, which quickly canceled the keystone project. Financial institutions remain as respectable upscale anchors of central Main Street, but without the exceptional promise of expansion of CCB&T.;

So Westminster is in a serious, yet unpredictable transition that's not so much shaped by municipal plan and code as by outside influences and business trends.

Less the city's core

County government and court buildings are far off Main Street. The new chain stores are in outlying shopping centers. The city is annexing more land to stretch its municipal reach. The traditional downtown becomes less the city's core, even as antique and art shops and other specialized businesses may thrive there.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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