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Outage has Main St. in dark mood; Contractor hits line, cutting off power to 1,200 customers; 'I've lost another day'; Merchants critical of BGE after third blackout in 3 weeks


For the third time in less than three weeks, parts of downtown Westminster were without electricity yesterday, leaving Main Street merchants frustrated and looking for answers from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

About 1,200 customers in a one-square-mile area lost power at 9: 57 a.m. BGE officials said the outage occurred after a fencing contractor hit a line while digging in front of a substation at John and Carroll streets. Power was restored at 11: 50 a.m.

The area affected included Route 140 to Main Street, from John Street on the west to Court Street on the east.

Downtown Westminster also experienced power outages on Friday and Feb 4. A defective cable was to blame in one, and a metal instructional sign falling onto a wire inside the substation caused the other, BGE officials said.

Many Main Street business owners expressed anger yesterday about the outages.

"I've lost another whole day, and my computer is shot, sizzled, gone," said Joe Markowitz, owner of Joe's Deli in the Winchester Exchange. "Before I could turn off the breakers when the lights went out, there were two more surges and I heard a pop. I could see the smoke coming from it."

Markowitz, who relies on the lunch trade for 95 percent of his business, got another jolt an hour later when employees from nearby Carroll County Social Services -- who account for more than half of his business -- were sent home early.

Michael Delaney, a BGE spokesman, said the utility company doesn't reimburse businesses for the costs of a power outage but that insurance might cover the loss.

"I can't [file with] my insurance company or my premiums will double for sure," Markowitz said.

BGE engineers will study the substation and might install devices similar to circuit breakers that would help isolate problems and direct power to other lines, said Frank Wanken, governmental affairs representative for BGE.

"I can't wait for [BGE] to get some competition," said Tony D'Eugenio, owner of the Giulianova Groceria.

Deregulation, which would allow competing companies to sell electricity, won't solve problems like yesterday's because the power will pass through the same lines, Delaney said.

"The delivery system is going to be the same; the only variance would be price," he said.

Dark hallways didn't discourage Beanie Baby hunters who began lining up at 8 a.m. outside All About Me Gifts in the Winchester Exchange, where a new shipment had come in.

Shop owner Jeannie Gambrill worked by candlelight, jotting down the names of more than 100 people who had put five Beanies each -- the maximum allowed -- on reserve. They were to return later when the power was restored.

"People were understanding," said Gambrill, whose supply was cleaned out. "They were just thankful I didn't leave them standing in the hallway."

Yesterday's power failure also was felt in Howard County Circuit Court, where computers are linked to a regional server based in the courthouse in Westminster, said Larry W. Shipley, clerk of court for Carroll County.

Shipley said the Carroll staff of about 25 clerks was in recess for nearly two hours before electricity was restored.

If a court docket is canceled or does not get completed, each case must be rescheduled, Shipley said.

If a trial had to be carried over until today because of the outage, the clerks might also have to reschedule today's docket, he said.

A generator enabled officers and staff members at the Westminster Police Department on Locust Street to keep working, although computers were down, said Lt. Dean Brewer, a police spokesman. At Locust Books, owner Tim Bryson made sales without lights and wrote out transactions that had to be entered into the electronic register later.

"After the third time, we're losing patience," he said. "Once was OK, and twice was annoying.

"I would just like to know what [utility officials] are doing about it," he said. "We lose telephone business [during a power outage] because we can't research titles that callers are interested in."

Across Distillery Drive, George Giese, director of Carroll County Social Services, sent about 80 employees home at 11: 30 a.m., 20 minutes before power was restored.

"I'm not a mind reader," Giese said.

The agency closed early because of concerns about the health and safety of the staff and because they were unable to work in the dark, he said.

Giese said he moved a board meeting to Carroll County Bank and Trust Co., where the electricity was not affected.

"Before leaving, I left orders to wait for 90 minutes and then send the staff home," he said. "You can't work in the dark, and it was cold outside. I didn't want to put staff through wearing coats and sweaters to do their work the rest of the day."

Linda Redding and Christine Belge, who operate Travel Network, rely more on computer and telephone business than on walk-in customers.

"When the power is out, our telephones just ring and ring, and customers think we are not open," Belge said.

"A number of business owners are experiencing a lot of distress over the frequency of these power failures," Redding said.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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