CUMBERLAND — Some downtown business owners say the upcoming $9.4 million renovation of the pedestrian mall needs to include a plan to attract new businesses to the town center.
Five business owners recently spoke to the Times-News and shared their views on the proposed project, which is expected to get underway in October. They included Jim Weir, Awesome Gifts and Collectibles; Bill Shaffer, City Lights Restaurant; Roger Lantz, M&M Bakery; Gino Giatras, Coney Island Famous Wieners; and Frank Frey of Morton’s Jewelers.
The renovations will begin with the underground replacement of utility lines followed by the reinstallation of Baltimore Street through the mall. It will run one way from Mechanic Street to George Street. The project will end with design upgrades to the streetscape, including new parklets.
The owners were asked if they believe the overall project will help the downtown economy.
“I think the improvements will be good,” Weir said, who relocated his business to the former Downtown Dollar store at 100 Baltimore St.
“The (addition of the) street will open things up and the store fronts will fill up,” he said. “Even with one-way traffic they will get extra exposure. People can drive by and see what’s there.”
Weir traded 1,200 square-feet of space at his former Greene Street location for 5,600 square-feet on Baltimore Street. He sells collectibles including coins, stamps, jewelry, comic books, baseball cards and rare artifacts as well as gold and silver.
“If they decide to go all in for the businesses and can get rid of the seating and benches, people will be moving and you won’t have people hanging out,” he said. “A lot of the crime you hear (about) is imagined. I have no problem down here. You have to watch, but it’s not worse than other places. If I see a group gather and stirring up things I go out and yell at them to move. If they don’t, I call the cops.”
Several of the owners did raise concerns with the overall plan. Giatras, Shaffer and Lantz said if the plan does not include steps to bring in new businesses it may fall short of its desired outcome.
“They have to come out and say this is the main goal,” Giatras said. “People will get on board if they know what the real agenda is. New fiber optics, new plumbing and new electric … we understand that, but beyond that, what is the real goal? Talking about schematics and color schemes and pavers … but what is the main purpose? Who are they trying to attract?
“It will only help if they have people already on the hook to come to town,” Giatras said. “The ‘build it they will come’ is ‘Field of Dreams’ stuff; it doesn’t work all the time. If you wait for that dream to come true, you’re going to have trouble. This is taxpayer money. I’m not saying it is misused but if it is going to be used, it’s got to have a benefit.”
“What is the benefit? I don’t understand it. I can’t seem to get an answer,” he said. “It won’t bring in business; it will be a deterrent. We see people in here everyday from in town and out of town and they love it just the way it is.”
Shaffer said the mall does need aesthetic work, but not the “radical” redesign that’s planned.
“I understand the stuff under the ground — piping and wiring is bad — I understand. But I think they should let it as a pedestrian mall. All this is going to be is a shortcut to get to George Street.”
Lantz said he doesn’t think the project will make much difference.
“I don’t want to be negative about it,” he said. “If they get the businesses in I think it will make a difference but, if not, it won’t.”
The business owners also expressed concerns about parking.
The proposed plan calls for the addition of 17 parallel parking spaces at different spots along Baltimore Street. The center section between Liberty and Centre streets will see just two spaces, with the lower portion between Mechanic and Liberty streets receiving seven spaces and the east end between Centre and George streets containing eight spaces.
The owners expressed concern with parallel parking and the possibility of the spaces being taken up by downtown employees.
“Is it to attract more people and more visitors and put a bigger store down here or to put biotech industry in these multi-story buildings?” Giatras said. “Is that the purpose or is it just to open the street up to put x amount of spots … so they should reverse that and go with diagonal parking. If they want more people in the stores, diagonal parking will get you more people.”
Frey called the mall a “43-year-old mistake.”
“For a business to be successful, it has to have visibility and accessibility,” he said. “We don’t have either here. Most of what they are doing is for the utilities. They need people making decisions who are from business. Parking should be angled parking. Some people don’t want to parallel park.”
Shaffer, who does a strong outdoor-dining business, is concerned he will lose space. With the sidewalks, street, soil cells for trees and margins for sandwich boards and plants, he said he will have less than 8-feet of space for tables available outside.
“It’s going to take my outdoor dining (away),” he said. “My tables are 6 feet. There’s not much room left.”
The owners are also concerned about the 18-month projected construction phase. Giartras said the construction crews will need to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“You got to get moving, get started,” he said. “You start at one end and yank it all up; don’t patch work it. Don’t start at the bottom then skip the middle …. put all fresh piping in at one time.
“As long as I know I will be out of business for say three days. You tell people up front what you’re going to expect from them they will accept it. Don’t blindside them. Don’t say it will be three weeks. None of us can survive without three weeks of income.”
Like Giatras, Lantz does not have a back entrance to his business. “Are we going to be able to get our customers in here?” Lantz said. “If they tear up the whole street and no one can get down here … I don’t know. I just wish I knew about exactly what’s going on. I can’t be out of business for too long.”
Shaffer does have a rear entrance to his restaurant.
“If it happens that will be my savior; I do have a back door and will advertise for them to use that,” he said. “But, I’m very concerned about the construction phase.”
Shaffer said the 18-month timeline and fall start are optimistic.
“Simply because once the plans are finished then they have to go to the SHA (Maryland State Highway Administration). They say 18-months; it will be 24,” he said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but I think they have delusions of grandeur on when this thing is going to start. I think when the final (project) price comes in it is going to blow their socks off.”
City officials have said a 48-room boutique hotel is likely to go into the former M&T Bank building at 166 Baltimore St. Some owners think the CEDC needs to finish one project first.
“Nothing against the Downtown Development Commission and CEDC (Cumberland Economic Development Corp.), but the lack of success and ability to finish a project is a concern,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said if the hotel is priced in the $200 per night range, it may struggle from competition in the region that offers more amenities for that price market.
Frey said the downtown must have more activities once the work is completed.
“They need more promotions,” he said. “They used to have an open yard sale on Saturdays. … But, they need more activities. They used to have an Italian Festival and an Ethnic Foods Festival … all that is gone.”
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.
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