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Hancock's downtown on the rebound

December 17, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

HANCOCK - When G.C. Murphy & Co. closed its Hancock store in the spring, it capped a string of closings that damaged the heart of the downtown.

But the downtown has begun to come to live again over the past several months with the opening of specialty shops, including Country Crafts and Bride's Petals, and an expansion of The Knife Corner.

Barnard's Ice Cream Parlor, which opened over the summer, and Valley Cab, a new taxi company, also are providing people with more services.

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At The Knife Corner, customers can choose from hundreds of knives, from steak knives to swords, or can purchase materials for making their own knives.

Most of the store's customers come from out of town, from the Baltimore-Washington area, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, said owners Gary Quackenbos, 46, and Terry Morse, 34.

"We want to have stuff you can't just go anywhere and buy," Morse said.

The store also has specialty kitchenware and $20 walking sticks carved by Quackenbos.

Morse said the secret to the store's success is a level of service and selection chain stores can't match.

Kristy Hendershot, 31, of Hendershot Sporting Goods, said she's started seeing more tourists come to town from Coolfont in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"I think it's great, especially the craft store. We don't have anything like that around here," said Sherry Forshey, 39, who lives in the area.

"All the buildings are getting filled up but I think we need something to get the kids off the streets."

Forshey said she'd like the town to have department stores. So would Mayor Daniel A. Murphy, but he said he doesn't expect that type of store to open in town in the near future.

Murphy said small towns everywhere are having trouble keeping major stores downtown.

"Obviously as the mayor and the council we're tickled to death to see the vacant stores have life again," he said.

"It's really going to be hard to compete with the Wal-Marts, Kmarts and Sam's Club," said Steve Hixon, president of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.

"When you can go to Hagerstown and buy jeans for $15 a pair you wouldn't come to Hancock and pay $40 or $50 a pair," Hixon said.

People are willing to travel for specialized services though, Hixon said.

"I think it's turning around," said Town Manager Louis O. Close. "New businesses are knocking on the door every day."

Close said one reason more stores haven't come to town is a scarcity of parking places. He said Sears has shown interest in opening a catalog store, but the town will be hard pressed to find a building that would meet space and parking requirements.

Insufficient parking also is a sign of economic health.

"About a year ago, there were empty parking spaces all up and down Main Street," Close said.

Lifelong Hancock resident Ron Swisher, 48, said he's still pessimistic.

"I've seen it come and go and I hope they stay. I've seen a lot of turnover. It upsets me because I grew up here. There's just been no growth."

Swisher said he thinks Wesel Boulevard in Hagerstown killed a lot of Hancock's stores. Since a large number of Hancock residents work in Hagerstown, they can shop on their way home.

Mary Ann Merrell, 58, said that in the three years she's been in Hancock, she's seen the town go downhill as far as businesses serving people's basic needs.

"We need something up here where we can go and buy something," she said. The new specialty shops are too expensive, she said.

Merrell doesn't have a car, and said she's hard pressed to get down to Hagerstown since County Commuter canceled its weekly bus service last year. Merrell said she'd like a Kmart-type store or a shoe store to open nearby.

Several storefronts have been taken by nonretail operations, including Electronic Banking Systems Inc., which has about 100 employees, and EastCore Inc. Management Solutions, which administers health care and other insurance plans for self-insured employers.

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