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City to begin area-revival program; Mayor to announce use of aid, self-help on smaller scale; Baltimore Main Street; Approach developed by National Trust in towns across U.S.; Economic development


Baltimore will be the second city in the nation to adopt a national preservation program that has successfully revived rundown neighborhood shopping districts, mainly in small towns.

Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce the citywide launch today of Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that combines community self-help, physical improvements and modest public funds to spark private economic development.

Now in more than 1,500 communities, the National Trust said the program has helped create 51,000 businesses, 193,000 jobs and 62,000 rehabilitation projects since 1980. According to the National Trust, for every dollar spent on the program, an average of $38 is invested in a community.

The mayor and Housing Commissioner Patricia Payne, whose department will oversee the program, are expected to unveil details of Baltimore Main Street at today's announcement before dozens of small-business owners and community leaders, who will be asked to submit applications for streets, blocks or entire neighborhoods to be included in the program.

The city has not determined how many areas will be included initially, said John Milton Wesley, a spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Community and Housing Development.

The National Trust began testing its formula in the mid-1970s as a way to stem the decline of historic commercial areas in small towns. But in the past five years, the program has grown fastest in urban neighborhood commercial districts, said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust.

"For a neighborhood to be viable, it needs a strong commercial element as well as a strong residential element," Moe said. "A lot of these commercial districts have suffered the same kinds of disinvestment that downtowns have. People have to leave their neighborhoods to shop in the suburbs and elsewhere. This is an effort to make these areas competitive again, making downtown a place where people are comfortable to come and shop and stroll."

Boston became the first city to put a citywide Main Street program in place. Its program has spread to 19 districts and is viewed as one of the most successful in the country.

The program focuses on improving the physical environment -- facades, streetscapes, signage; building cooperation among public and private groups with a stake in the neighborhood; promoting the area to customers, investors and new businesses; and strengthening the existing economic base.

In Baltimore, the housing commissioner plans to involve businesses and community groups in using the four-point framework, Wesley said.

"The idea is to find out what the communities want," he said.

"Because of its unique neighborhood history, no cookie-cutter design will work on Baltimore's streets. It will take unique planning to revitalize the communities and at the same time respect and maintain the social and architectural integrity of those neighborhoods."

The National Main Street Center has been working with the Abell Foundation, the city's housing and community development department and the Maryland Department of Community and Housing Development to set up the program in Baltimore.

The center led strategy sessions on commercial revitalization with dozens of local people, including preservationists.

"The Main Street program gives the city the tools needed to help small business compete with the 'big box' retailers and suburban malls," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

"Small business and historic preservation go hand in hand."

Bill Pencek, president of Baltimore Heritage and owner of a small retail shop, said he has no doubt the targeted areas will attract new businesses.

"This is one of the best things that the mayor has seized upon," he said. "It's not going to be overnight, but I think within the short term ... you are going to start to see a few modest but powerful changes."

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