Community leaders, looking to inject new life into downtown Westminster by attracting youthful consumers from nearby McDaniel College, have looked enviously toward Baltimore's funky and thriving Hampden and Fells Point neighborhoods.
They've even reached out to some of the eclectic shops in those trendy spots and invited them to open satellites in the historic Carroll County seat.
But that effort, some critics fear, could be derailed tonight if the city council passes a proposed downtown ban on any more tattoo parlors - businesses that have become nearly as ubiquitous in campus towns as pizza parlors.
"Our generation is one of the biggest demographics getting tattoos," said Jason Fratto, senior class representative on McDaniel's student government.
"Banning tattoo parlors is a slippery slope. It might cause more student-friendly businesses not to come in," said Fratto, 21, of Salt Lake City.
Supporters of the ban, however, worry about the clientele that would be attracted by tattoo parlors, and wonder whether permitting more of them is the sort of economic development they want for a city center where 6 percent of the retail storefronts are vacant.
"It's based on a vision that some people may agree with and some not," Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said. "What you think is conducive to business and what is not."
Some residents of Pennsylvania Avenue said such establishments don't belong alongside their residential blocks.
"We need to be careful where we allow things to be placed," resident Darcel Harris said at a recent city council meeting. "Some areas are more fragile than others."
But restricting now-trendy tattoo shops could backfire, especially as the city center struggles to fill unoccupied retail spots, critics of the ordinance have said.
"When there are vacancies on Main Street, I don't feel it's time to make a [zoning] ordinance restrictive," said Lori Graham, president of the Greater Westminster Development Corp. and co-owner of a downtown flower shop. "Whether it's a tattoo shop or a dress shop or a bookstore, the key is to have destinations. Downtown can't be so niche it only fills a small percentage of the population's needs."
But Graham is outnumbered. She was the only member of Westminster Planning and Zoning Commission to oppose amending downtown business zoning to ban tattoo shops.
The presence of tattoo parlors hasn't hampered the revitalization of other historic Main Street communities. A stretch of Market Street, the main drag in downtown Frederick, is lined with tattoo shops. And in historic Ellicott City, at least one prominent body art/piercing venue thrives alongside upscale restaurants and boutiques.
Westminster council members also will be voting on whether to ban gun shops from the downtown business district.
A number of McDaniel's 1,600 students would frequent a reputable tattoo shop within walking distance in their college town, Fratto said.
Little Vinnie's Tattoo Parlor thrived on Main Street for years until the sale of the century-old Wantz Building in 1999. The building now houses a cigar shop, knitting store, and bath and body boutique.
Actively recruiting businesses and collaborating with property owners could more effectively revitalize a historic Main Street than restrictive zoning, said Ed Brown, a program officer with the National Trust Main Street Center in Washington.
A partnership between McDaniel College and Westminster to help bring student-friendly businesses downtown could help foster economic development, Brown added.
Two Westminster tattoo shops that have opened downtown will be allowed to remain if the ordinance is approved.
Even though Jason Nightengale's downtown Tiki Tattoo shop would not be affected by the ban, he opposes it. He said downtown retail space is much less expensive than leasing a spot along Route 140, where chain stores predominate and tattoo parlors would still be permitted.
Nightengale said he has had tattoo clients who come from New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. And that brings revenue into the city, he said.
"People have been coming here for years [for tattoos], and when they do come, they buy food and drink, possibly gas," said Nightengale, a lifelong Westminster resident who has operated his tattoo business for six years.
Opponents of the ban argue that tattoos have become mainstream and appeal to all ages. Residents such as Virginia Hof, a registered nurse in Westminster, said they have had permanent makeup applied in a local body art shop.
Instead of restricting the types of businesses downtown, Westminster should focus more on improving the building facades, said Graham, the president of the development group.
Six percent of downtown retail buildings are vacant, and most are clustered together on one stretch of East Main Street, said Stan Ruchlewicz, the city's economic development director.
He said he has sent letters to the owners of the Ma Petite Shoe and Oh! Said Rose boutiques in Hampden, as well as Su Casa and the toy store Amuse in Fells Point, inviting them to open shops in Westminster.
But Ruchlewicz said talk of the tattoo amendment might generate negative publicity for the city.
"It's a concern: whether or not people see us as pro- or anti-business, especially with the young entrepreneurs," Ruchlewicz said.
Westminster Councilman Robert P. Wack said the city council seems pretty resolute in their plans to strike tattoo parlors from the city's three downtown commercial zones.
"Once you start down a certain path with certain kinds of businesses, it's very hard to reverse that," Wack said.