Downtown said 'turning the corner'

May 15, 1997


Staff Writer

Despite recent and planned departures of several businesses downtown, many of the area's established retailers continue to hold an optimistic view of downtown's future.

While downtown has experienced some setbacks recently, it is in a positive transition stage, said Tom Newcomer, co-owner of Carson's Jewelers in Public Square.

"I do feel like we're turning a corner, but it's happening slowly," Newcomer said Wednesday.

Some downtown merchants expressed shock at learning Tuesday that Grand Piano & Furniture Co. will close this month as part of a consolidation.


Fewer consumers were stopping in the 18 W. Washington St. store, on-street parking was hard to find and the building's six-story configuration was no longer suitable for displaying furniture, said Andre Taylor, store manager.

Also closing its doors downtown in the last four months were McCrory's, Marcie & Me, Bay Jewelers and South Beach Coffee Shop.

The Baldwin House complex near Grand Piano in the first block of West Washington Street has been mostly vacant for about eight years, although a group of business people are interested in renovating it for commercial use, said Mayor Steven T. Sager.

Fighting to survive

After a year's delay, two major downtown projects - the Public Square renovation and the construction of the Clock Building in the square's northeast quadrant - are expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Local business and government officials continue working to improve downtown's parking and to make the routes into downtown more attractive.

Recurring annual events, such as the Western Maryland Blues Fest and Ransom of Hagerstown, should help promote downtown, merchants said.

"There are so many elements in our favor, that if (downtown) doesn't succeed, it's because we didn't let it succeed," Newcomer said.

The days of the downtown department store are gone and more boutique or niche shops are needed, several merchants said.

Several specialty businesses are thriving downtown, including Carol & Co. and The Plum restaurant.

The Plum, which until recently was open only through lunch, added some evening hours this month and its lunch business has increased, said co-owner Sarah Ardinger.

'Round the Square's hours will be expanded, possibly this month, and the eatery and coffee shop will remain open into the early evening, owner Harry Grandinett said.

Grandinett, who is considering enlarging the establishment because he is forced to turn away customers, said he is breaking even financially, and plans to hold on as long as he can.

While the business climate could be better, Grandinett said much of the problem could be related to attitude and the perception that downtown is dead.

"Attitudes are very difficult to change," he said.

City officials changing gears

The possibility exists that new businesses will replace those that have left, officials said.

Businesses that might be opening downtown include a night club, a dance club, a Mexican restaurant, a hip-hop clothing store and an antique store, said Downtown Coordinator Karen Giffin.

City officials will switch gears from focusing on downtown tourism and events to increasing awareness of several loan and financial assistance programs for starting or expanding a business, or renovating commercial space, Giffin said.

They also need to continue recruiting new businesses, such as niche shops and stores that serve senior citizens, she said.

Diane O'Connell, co-owner of O'Connell Jewelers, said she thinks the city should spend more money renovating vacant downtown shops so people could afford to open businesses in them.

One of the reasons the O'Connells didn't relocate downtown after closing Bay Jewelers in the Baldwin House in February is the high cost of renovating downtown's older buildings, she said.

Jim Baker, owner of Hoffman's Clothiers, said government can't do everything. "Free enterprise will take care of itself."

"The ones that can't do business down here want to blame it on downtown," Baker said.

Businesses that provide quality services can succeed downtown, some merchants said. Hoffman's has been downtown since 1919 and Carson's since 1902.

Downtown has been good to Hoffman's, prompting Baker to invest more than $10,000 in renovations to the 15 N. Potomac St. store.

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