FOR A long time, Glen Burnie has needed something.
The town sprawls along Ritchie Highway with 75,000 residents in a seemingly perpetual series of shopping malls, auto dealers, fast-food joints and state facilities such as the Motor Vehicle Administration.
But something was missing.
Glen Burnie has enough livable communities -- its lifelong residents will attest to that. It has industry. And restaurant-goers can find establishments where waitresses greet them with that familiar Baltimore "hon."
Still, the town that evolved from a mining operation nearly 150 years ago needed something more.
Nah, not open spaces. They're not making any more of it. But what Glenn Burnie needed -- and still had a chance to get -- was a center, a soul.
That wasn't a lost cause.
Slowly, behind the faM-gade of Ritchie Highway's mishmash, the community is finding its elusive center. Last year, the town erected a 30-foot-wide brick arch at Ritchie Highway and Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, giving the proud community one of its few distinguishable landmarks. And today, a short distance from the arch, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is scheduled to dedicate an emerging commercial, residential and entertainment district, the Glen Burnie Town Center.
The county calls the $20 million urban renewal project a true downtown.
Where's the center?
County officials will have a tough time convincing anyone that Glen Burnie now has a central district. It's almost like trying to pinpoint the center of the universe. But the project takes a step toward changing the community's perception as the capital of sprawl. It brings the town that tangible and ethereal something it had been missing.
If the Glen Burnie Town Center succeeds, it will be good news for the other two town centers -- Parole and Odenton -- that the Anne Arundel general development plan calls for.
The center is one of the few places where you'll find pedestrians in Glen Burnie. At lunchtime last Thursday, about two dozen people were walking, standing or sitting on the plaza that features an elegant four-story clock tower. People were going into the new restaurants, the unisex barbershop, the bank and the supermarket. And people went to and fro Arundel Center North, which houses Anne Arundel Community College classrooms and some County Council offices. These places are across the street from free parking in a Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard garage and a multiplex theater, which predated the current development.
The new one-story structures have brick buildings that feature awnings with broad, colorful stripes. In the winter, the plaza will convert from an outdoor stage for Friday night concerts to an ice-skating rink.
Bonnie Sroka didn't think she would want to open her second gift shop in Glen Burnie. Not until she heard about plans for the town center.
"My sister, who lives out here, said you should look at Glen Burnie," recalled Ms. Sroka, whose Handmade With Love shop features hot-selling stuffed Boyds Bears. "I said, uhhhhh, Glen Burnie? When you think of Glen Burnie, you think of Ritchie Highway, real crowded, a store everywhere. But this is a place you have to see. Here, it seems like a step back."
Not a step back in time, she said, but in mood and atmosphere. "It's not your Ritchie Highway crowded sort of thing."
Ms. Sroka gets lunchtime traffic from college students and government employees.
A future customer is Susan Thiess of Ferndale, who walked there from her job at an orthodontist's office nearby. It was her maiden trip there. She was in a rush to get back to work, but promised to return.
"They've done a lot here. It looks great," Ms. Thiess said of the town center. "It's like the harbor or something."
That's a reach, but the excitement is understandable. It must also be sustainable.
Bob Erich Sr. thinks the center is good for the long run. He grew up in Glen Burnie and has owned a barbershop -- or hair salon -- in Glen Burnie for years. He and his Son, Bob Jr., opened their shop at the town center a month ago. He says business is better than ever. "We're doing better because we're getting walk-ins from other stores," he said.
A few doors down, Carol Daubert pointed out that establishments also have created jobs. She retired from her career as an administrative assistant at the Coast Guard yard to manage her daughter's restaurant, Astor's CafM-i.
"We hire college students, high school students, housewives and retirees," Ms. Daubert said.
There's only one obvious problem with the town center: It didn't happen sooner.
Optimism abounds, although the project may not be finished. The "downtown" also could get an upscale hotel-conference center, which could really give it a kick.
Indeed, Glen Burnie is growing again -- better, smarter and from within.
Norris P. West writes editorials from The Sun's Anne Arundel County bureau.