Improvement Association Hopes to Foster Main Street Growth
Newly formed Reisterstown Improvement Association looking for grant money, public parking and new zoning for historical buildings.
In the era of big box stores like Walmart, Target, Sam's Club and Best Buy, Main Street America may be taking a back seat. With limited advertising budgets, modest storefronts and specialized product selections, small Mom-and-Pop shops often find it difficult to get the word out and reel in customers.
A new Reisterstown civic organization aims to correct this trend by bolstering Main Street's image, accessibility and business base.
The Reisterstown Improvement Association (RIA), Inc., which officially formed as a 501(c)(3) in November, is working on several initiatives for Main Street. The group's ambitious activities include applying for a commercial revitalization grant, looking for public parking possibilities and working on a commercial zoning overlay that would allow more uses in historic buildings.
The commercial revitalization grant, which RIA President Glenn Barnes worked on with board member Kathy Gambrill, is the group's main focus right now.
"We're trying to get the grant funds to make it, aesthetically, a little more pleasing along Main Street," Barnes said.
The group would use the grant money to place additional trash receptacles, new benches and planters along Main Street, and replace Main Street banners that were damaged or lost in last winter's snowstorms. There were about 24 banners up, and the group would replace 15 to 20 of them, Barnes said.
The Baltimore County Council approved the grant of $15,713 for the RIA on Wednesday, Dec. 15, but it still needs to clear the executive office, budget office, legal office and economic development, said Peirce MacGill, revitalization specialist for the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development. Barnes said if the grant is approved, his group expects to see the money in May or June 2011.
Since Main Street does not have any public parking lots, the RIA is also looking at two pieces of land that could potentially serve that purpose.
"Parking is an issue, really, primarily in every revitalization district," MacGill said.
One piece of land under consideration is between the Reisterstown Library and Franklin Elementary School. It's a field of grass and trees that does not appear to be in use. Local architect Bill Keeney said a parking lot in this place could alleviate some current safety hazards.
"If you go [to Franklin Elementary] during a PTA meeting or a teacher's meeting or any other function, you'll see that everyone parks up and down that street and it becomes very dangerous," said Keeney, who runs Keeney Architects.
Born and raised in Reisterstown, Keeney estimates he has done about 23 jobs on Main Street, including work at the Harryman House and the library. Main Street improvements are very close to his heart, being a former chairman and co-chair of the now-defunct Main Street Committee.
"Reisterstown needs parking drastically in order to survive through these times," he said. "If we got this parking lot next to the library, we could stage our buses there if we wanted to. It gives us all kinds of options."
The second potential parking lot runs behind The Cow, in space between the shop and the Chatsworth School. Keeney estimates it to be about 150 feet by 600 or 700 feet.
Mike Reiner, owner of The Cow, supports having a parking lot behind his own lot, even if it means more traffic around his shop. He already welcomes Main Street shoppers to use The Cow's parking lot.
"It's good to have people shopping and people parking in places that are safe, as opposed to hanging out on [Route] 140 or being hit on Main Street because you have to open your door," he said. "Any improvement to Main Street is a plus."
The parking lot could be a great place for people to line up during parades and for public works drivers to use as a staging area before storms, Reiner said.
Keeney said the parking lot could have entrances and exits on Main Street across from Cockeys Mill Road and Bond Avenue.
"That could very well solve a lot of the parking problems on Main Street, especially when there's some kind of function going on," he said.
Keeney, who drew designs for the two potential parking lots, walked the areas with Barnes, MacGill and Wayne Mixdorf, director of parking for the Baltimore County Revenue Authority.
"It's clear to me that they have some very good ideas about where potential parking could be located," Mixdorf said. "It would be an asset to the community."
Mixdorf's agency, which handles parking management, would get involved once infrastructure would need to be put in place.
There are some hurdles, though.
"Those properties are owned by the [Board of Education] so nothing can be developed until they agree to relinquish this property to the revenue authority," MacGill said. "Right now, they're just rectangular pieces of grass that appear to be surplus."
Keeney said the area between the library and the school runs over utility pipes, but using a removable parking surface might work.
MacGill said that if the parking lots come to fruition, funding may have to come from a combination of the RIA and economic development, but those are discussions to be had further down the road.
Expanding Uses of Historic Buildings
The RIA also hopes to get a zoning overlay passed for Main Street, which would allow historic buildings to expand their uses. The current zoning code restricts uses in old buildings that have features like narrow stairways and narrow driveways.
"What we've started on is looking at setbacks; how far the existing buildings are from the street edge, how far they are from each other, what the scale is, the height and the width of the building, where the parking is located," said Jeff Mayhew, chief of community planning and acting director of the Baltimore County Office of Planning. "We [will] draft a new zoning code that mimics what's in the field and then we [will] present it the stakeholders; the community and property owners."
Mayhew said the zoning overlay would be a new code that is appropriate to the community's scale and character. While some progress on the overlay has been made, he said it is currently on hold.
A Successful Revitalization
Jason Simonin, manager of The Stash Box on Main Street, thinks revitalization in Reisterstown could really pay off. And he knows from experience.
Simonin worked at Sean Bolan's, an Irish pub in Bel Air, when the area was being revitalized.
"It took them forever, but downtown Bel Air looks really nice," he said. "There's a lot more people."
He noticed the crowds in the pub picked up at lunchtime and in the afternoon, when people usually wouldn't be at the bar. He has confidence Reisterstown could pick up in the same way.
"In an area here, where the foot traffic already exists, if you make it nice, it can only increase," he said.
Reiner wants to see Main Street revitalized so that Mom-and-Pop shops continue to have an outlet.
"It's all quite real and one of the last few places in the U.S.—main streets—where people can buy real estate and open businesses," he said. "They get to try out their idea and rent is pretty cheap."
Editor's note: The RIA meets tonight and every third Tuesday of the month at Long & Foster, 321 Main Street, at 7 p.m.