An elusive Main St. U-turn

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Veiled in trees and appointed with antique furniture, ornate rugs and an elite restaurant, the Antrim 1844 Country Inn offers the sort of country luxury wealthy travelers want.

Visitors, who pay between $235 and $375 a night, invariably ask innkeeper Richard Mollett what they should do in surrounding Taneytown. There are two antiques stores, he tells them, but other than that, it's better to shop and stroll in Gettysburg, Emmitsburg or Frederick.

"The Antrim has been sort of its own little world over there," said Nancy McCormick, Taneytown's economic development director. "The guests haven't traditionally gotten out and walked around much, and for a long time, you could hardly blame them."

Taneytown wants to change that. Through aggressive revitalization of Main Street, actually called Baltimore Street, it hopes to squeeze money from Antrim guests and Gettysburg tourists. The city also wants a more vibrant, inviting downtown for its 5,000 residents.

That desire unifies Taneytown with virtually every town or small city in Maryland. The state has a few trademark downtowns -- Annapolis with its historic capitol and harbor, Ellicott City with its railroad, riverfront and eclectic shops -- but far more cities and towns are struggling to create identities that might attract new residents and businesses.

Local officials across Maryland and the nation agree that Main Street is the chief identifying feature of any small community. That's why so many towns and cities, from Salisbury to Cumberland to Bel Air, are at some stage of a downtown improvement program. Last year, towns participating in revitalization programs reinvested $15.2 billion in their downtowns and created 52,000 new businesses and 206,000 new jobs, according to the Washington-based National Main Street Trust.

"You can't talk about small-town living without talking about Main Street," said Ken Decker, town manager of Hampstead, which is devising a downtown plan. "It's the commerce center, but it's also a public space, so it gives you a real insight into the character of the community. How goes Main Street, so goes the town."

With officials such as Gov. Parris N. Glendening determined to prevent sprawl, government grants and incentives abound for towns looking to revitalize their already-developed areas.

The Maryland Main Street Program and the National Main Street Trust lend towns their expertise, saving the communities consulting and design costs. Small grants are available from Maryland Community Legacy Program and from state and national groups concerned with revitalization. But most of the funds come from the towns, which must persuade local businesses to participate.

Taneytown presents a test of the effectiveness of revitalization programs because it is not a county seat, not close to Baltimore or Washington, not a well-known historical site and presents no unusual geographical traits.

Most storefronts have remained occupied, and people stroll Baltimore Street in the evening. But residents see rougher sidewalks and shabbier facades than they want. For every craft shop, there's a Taney Pawn, for every historic building, a top floor with boarded windows. More important, residents note a lack of distinction.

"It's pretty typical of what happens with small towns when businesses move out to shopping centers," said Linda Galvin, a volunteer leader of Taneytown's revitalization effort since 1999. "As the center of a community, our downtown is a bit empty."

The city government formed a beautification committee in the mid-1990s, and out of that blossomed a Main Street revitalization effort. Residents, merchants and officials knew they wanted to improve something, but their vision was and remains unclear.

Without a widely known feature to build around, Taneytown should become a cleaner, prettier, more lively version of itself, the consensus goes. But what does that mean? The government will restore City Hall, build a new police station and work with the State Highway Department to redo sidewalks and street lighting. But it can't magically create craft shops or bistros, and it can't force existing businesses to gussy up their facades. Fortunately, McCormick and others say, revitalization blueprints exist.

Taneytown became Maryland's sixth Main Street Community last year. The state-run Main Street Maryland program, which borrows its philosophy from the National Main Street Trust, offers free consulting on all facets of revitalization. Towns apply to join for three-year stretches.

The strategy begins with an organization of concerned business owners, residents and government officials. Taneytown has that. The city budgeted $5,000 to its Main Street organization last year and will give $7,500 this year for operating and promotional costs. "They're our most organized community," said Cindy Stone of Main Street Maryland.

Next, a town markets itself as a shopping district and a place to gather for events. With only a smattering of shops downtown and a strip mall several blocks away, Taneytown will have trouble regaining its status as a unified commerce center, said Mayor Henry Heine.

Officials have more hope for events. Last December, 249 people battled bitter cold to eat gingerbread cookies, drink cocoa and watch the lighting of a town Christmas tree. This July, a farmers' market will debut beside City Hall.

In the final phase of revitalization, the town would seek new and different businesses. Instead of four pizza shops, Taneytown might have two pizza shops, a boutique and a bakery. Though a portrait studio and a combination cafe and bookstore are expected to move in this year, visions of an artier downtown, similar to Ellicott City's, seem remote to most residents and town officials.

But if the cafe succeeds, other businesses may follow, Galvin said. "Having talked informally with people who run those kinds of businesses, I think they're taking a wait-and-see attitude. They don't want to be the first one in."

Galvin said she is tired of hearing that Taneytown can't support a restaurant or antiques shops.

She and others point to Every Bloomin' Thing, a downtown flower shop that competes effectively with the Hallmark store on the edge of town.

Most customers are on specific business, said Alice Unger, who helps her daughter run the shop, located off Baltimore Street. But if more complementary businesses move in, people might start browsing more. "We're really moving in the right direction," Unger said.

The city needn't look far for successful models.

In Westminster, Main Street went from a thriving summer destination for Baltimoreans in the 1920s to a collection of failing businesses and deteriorating storefronts in the 1980s. But the city has been working on redevelopment for more than a decade, and open retail spaces are now rare, said planning director Thomas Beyard.

Sykesville has refashioned its downtown around a railroad theme, with a top restaurant, Baldwin's Station & Pub, in an old train station, and a former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad switching tower set to become a visitor center and downtown meeting area. Property values in the historic district have soared 30 to 40 percent, said Town Manager Matt Candland. The town's grand old homes, carved into apartments a decade ago, have become single-family dwellings again.

Taneytown lacks the anchors Westminster has in county municipal buildings and Western Maryland College. It's too remote to hold as much appeal for commuters as Sykesville. But skeptics who doubt a small rural town's chances to rebound need only look at Newkirk, Okla. (population 2,027), Corning, Iowa (population 1,806) or Lanesboro, Minn. (population 898). The National Main Street Center has recognized all three in the past three years for exceptional Main Street projects.

"A place like Taneytown can actually benefit from being smaller, because it only has to complete a few projects to create a sense of momentum," said McDuffie Nichols, senior project manager for the National Main Street Trust.

The formula for Main Street redevelopment doesn't call for towns to become Mayberry replicas or tourist traps. In figuring out what it should be, a town must understand what it isn't, Nichols, said.

"Some communities have to come to the realization that they don't have tourist draws," he said. "It's hard because so many want to be tourist centers."

From the front room of the Antrim at least, Taneytown appears headed in the right direction, Mollett said. That can only help the inn, which competes with similar businesses in more tourist-oriented towns such as Virginia's Lexington and Leesburg.

"There's a lot of work to do, but with the people who are behind the effort, you at least see a light at the end of the tunnel," Mollett said. "Eight or 10 years ago, I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel."

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