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Trio of plans heartens city; Revitalization effort gains momentum with downtown projects


Three years ago, when Harry Sirinakis decided to pour $330,000 into his popular Westminster restaurant, Harry's, a Main Street staple since World War II, it was the biggest risk of his life.

Businesses were trickling out of town. Shops were boarded up. City officials and developers were desperately trying to draft local merchants into supporting a revitalization effort.

Last week, after that effort received a multimillion-dollar boost with plans to develop three downtown landmarks, Sirinakis is more confident he made the right decision.

"We have a long way to go," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done and a lot of decisions to be made. But momentum is coming. Focus is coming. And money, hopefully, is coming."

On Monday, the Westminster Common Council approved a $3.3 million development of the long-vacant Farmers Supply Co. property and began negotiations to buy the 62-year-old Carroll Theater for use as an arts center. A day later, an Owings Mills design and printing company signed a contract to buy the old post office, completing the city's push to redevelop four properties seen as key to a healthy downtown.

The historic post office, the Farmers Supply site, the old firehouse and the old J. C. Penney building were identified in a consultant's report in 1994 as properties whose development would benefit the surrounding area.

"It's been about as good a week as we've ever had," said Council President Damian Halstad. "Westminster is a genuine small town -- it is not a Hollywood set that's been dumped in the middle of a community. We need to capitalize on that history and preserve it."

With the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants on Route 140, Westminster has struggled to regain its status as a historic hub.

The city was named one of seven Maryland areas targeted for historical and commercial revitalization.

Resplendent with Victorian homes and buildings more than 100 years old, the nearly three-mile downtown stretch was placed on the state Department of Housing and Community Development's Main Street Maryland list last spring. The distinction added Westminster to a national program that has invested more than $7 billion in 1,400 communities since 1977.

In recent years, the business community has invested millions of dollars in Main Street renovation. The firehouse has been turned into offices and shops. The old J. C. Penney building underwent a $750,000 face lift in 1995 to become the Winchester West Building. Jiffy Mart built a gas station and convenience store on a vacant lot in 1996. Barnes-Bollinger Insurance Services Inc. expanded its offices in 1998. And last year, Sirinakis reopened his restaurant, Harry's Main Street Grille, after an extensive expansion.

Thomas B. Beyard, city director of planning and public works, said the revitalization efforts could spur additional interest.

"The best signal for the business community is when they see people investing dollars," he said. "People are buying buildings, fixing up buildings. There's a momentum of businesses wanting to be in Westminster."

William A. Hasson of Tyler-Donegan Inc. is among them.

The city last week accepted the Hyattstown firm's proposal for major redevelopment of the 1-acre Farmers Supply site, off Main Street at Liberty and Green streets.

Hasson met with local officials Friday to refine the firm's plans for a three-story, 15,000-square-foot building that combines office, retail and residential space with a city parking garage -- an arrangement the developer calls a "live-work" model. They have planned four or five upscale apartments, possibly with balconies overlooking the street, combining stone, brick, concrete and tile.

"It takes advantage of what's architecturally and structurally an old town area," he said. "We don't want it to be a building where folks come in, close the door and throw the bolt lock. It will be a destination to live and work."

The city's option to buy the Carroll Theater sets the stage for significant redevelopment on West Main Street, pushing recent improvements westward, observers say. Restoration of the movie theater could draw more visitors, boost spending and push back the bedtime of downtown establishments.

The city's option to buy the Carroll Theater sets the stage for significant redevelopment on West Main Street, pushing recent improvements westward, observers say. Restoration of the movie theater could draw more visitors, boost spending and push back the bedtime of downtown establishments.

A Maryland State Arts Council study found that every dollar invested in the arts prompts another $2.30 spent on surrounding services, such as parking, restaurants and hotels.

In Frederick, where the 1920s Tivoli movie palace was renovated to become the Weinburg Center for the Arts, that meant more than $500,000 in downtown spending last year.

"When we have a major show, all the restaurants are pretty much full. The parking deck is full. People are strolling through town," said Stewart Seal, executive director of the Weinburg Center. "Just the fact that we draw an audience from the surrounding 50 miles has a spin-off result."

In Easton, about 42,000 visitors flocked last year to the historic Avalon Theatre, which underwent a $2 million renovation in 1989.

Restaurants have opened and other businesses have expanded in the shadow of the theater that lures patrons from Washington and Annapolis.

"All main streets are starting to look the same with the same shops and the same signs and the same logos, and it can be Anywhere, U.S.A., and that's frightening," General said. "People are looking for someplace to feel the character of the people who live there, and a historic theater helps to do that."

So, too, could the mustard-colored brick and black glazed tile theater on Westminster's West Main Street

In fact, Sirinakis, whose restaurant is in the same block as the Carroll Theater, is banking on it.

"I think this side of town will have a whole different look in 10 years," he said. "Business is coming back. People are rediscovering us again. We have set the tone for what we feel the rest of West Main Street can and needs to be."

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