Frederick officials have worked for years to revitalize the Golden Mile, an economically troubled stretch of U.S. 40 on the city’s west side.
But for some of the small businesses that populate that corridor, the perception has been worse than the reality.
Justin M. Kiska, the president, managing director and co-owner of the Way Off Broadway theater at 5 Willowdale Drive in the Willowtree Plaza shopping center, said the Golden Mile is in much better shape than some believe.
“Overall, I truly believe [that with] the ‘quote, unquote’ problems of the Golden Mile, the perception is worse than it is,” he said. “Route 26 is the new, hot place, but it’s cyclical. The Golden Mile was the first place that grew, then [Md.] 85, now it’s [Md.] 26.”
Kiska pointed to the intersections of U.S. 15, Interstate 70 and Interstate 270 as major factors in the economic viability of the well-traveled area, which stretches about two miles between U.S 15 and I-270.
He said the theater will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014, even though theaters across the country are fading and closing.
“It’s a perception problem,” he said. “... It’s constantly busy. The parking lots are always full. Over the last two to three years, it’s been hard economic times, but we’re still here. The lights are still on.”
The Golden Mile sees more than 50,000 vehicle trips every day, giving it some of the most robust traffic of any location in the city, said Richard Griffin, Frederick’s director of economic development.
The eventual upgrade to the Frederick Towne Mall site — which will include new development — will only improve that status, he said.
Many retailers can make upgrades to their buildings and stores in an attempt to capitalize on the revitalization when it comes, he said.
“When retailers are looking for locations, it still is one of the best retail locations in Frederick County,” Griffin said. “You’ve got restaurants, all different types of retailers. We’ve got vacancies, but with the exception of the mall, which was a planned vacancy, that’s normal.”
As the mall redevelops over the next few years, its’s going to bring business, Griffin said.
“Now is the time for us to invest on the face-lifts and improvements to our facilities,” Griffin said. “We believe that strategy has [been] borne out in other places before, like downtown.”
Griffin said the Golden Mile has 285 of the city’s 3,500 businesses, about 8 percent of businesses in Frederick.
The Golden Mile’s vacancy rate is about 13 percent, which he said is about the same as Frederick’s other major retail hubs, such as downtown or on Md. 85. That rate doesn’t include the mall, which is no longer for lease.
He said the Golden Mile accounts for about 24 percent of commercial space in the city.
Part of the reason for the perception about the Golden Mile is simply its age because it is one of the older shopping areas of the city, Griffin said.
“It’s kind of like anything else — people are always looking for the newest automobile, the newest place to eat and shop and do anything,” he said.
“That’s why retailers are constantly redoing their signs, facade, their inventory. If they don’t, they get left behind.”
The mall has been a focus for the city for several years, as elected officials have tried to put a framework in place to revitalize the area.
The five-member Frederick Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in January to approve the Golden Mile Small Area Plan, which includes guidelines for zoning and design standards for updating businesses in the area.
As updates are made, developers will have to follow the guidelines of the plan created by the Frederick Planning Department with input from residents, business owners and developers.
Several aldermen previously have called the approval a first step in a long march toward seeing economic recovery in the area.
The major source of consternation is Frederick Towne Mall, which has just two stores in its main building.
The city Planning Commission is reviewing the plans for rezoning several sites on the Golden Mile. The mall’s owners have asked to change the site’s zoning from mixed use, which would require the inclusion of housing, to general commercial, which would not.
The commission discussed the zoning at its Feb. 11 meeting, but did not make a decision. Two people spoke at that meeting, urging the commission not to allow the mall to be replaced with a big-box store, such as a Target or Wal-Mart, which they fear would not drive economic growth. The developer has not said what might replace the mall.
The commission will discuss the zoning a second time, at a meeting to be held March 11, before making a recommendation on changes to the Golden Mile, including the mall.
Success amid struggle
Many of the owners and managers along the Golden Mile say their businesses are succeeding despite the overall economic problems in the area.
They point to customer loyalty, built up over the years, as well as the convergence of the three highways that Kiska mentioned.
Tawn O’Connor, book manager at Wonder Book and Video at 1306 West Patrick St. in the Golden Mile Marketplace shopping center, said the store’s foot traffic has risen in recent years, although she didn’t know why.
“The foot traffic has increased, at least for us,” she said. “People come in and want information; they want books.”
The store has a large number of regular customers who come in seeking used book bargains, as well as things they can’t find elsewhere, she said.
“They come in regularly; I get to know their tastes,” she said. “We’ll make recommendations, too.”
Ajay Pradhan, the owner of Clay Oven restaurant at 1170 West Patrick St. since it opened in 2002, said the Golden Mile has some of the best dining options in the county.
“I think the Golden Mile is the best place for businesses,” he said. “Downtown has its own charm, but the Golden Mile is great. If you see, from one end to the other in this half-mile stretch, we have so many options — Italian, Mexican. We don’t have French, but we have it all from fast food to fine dining.”
The restaurant is routinely busy, due to regular customers and the fact that the shopping center, which isn’t named on its sign, is fully occupied, bringing extra foot traffic, Pradhan said.
“Clay Oven has a good reputation, and this strip mall is completely full,” he said. “The AT&T store is the biggest attraction.”
Loyal customers drive traffic to other stores, too.
Rick Bell, the owner of Rick’s Fish & Pet Supply, Inc., said his store has been open for 24 years, and developed a loyal group of customers who trust him to have the products they need.
“I have people ... they were kids when they started, and now their kids are coming in,” Bell said.
He also praised the Golden Mile’s multiple highway-access points.
His store has developed a reputation as a place that can serve new pet owners, as well as those seeking more advanced gear, which helps the business stay viable, Bell said.
“We seem to handle the people that are starting out very well,” Bell said. “I’ve had times people say, ‘I was in store X, and they said, ‘We can’t help you, go see Rick.’ We get recommendations from other stores. In addition to having all the beginner stuff, we have the high-end stuff, the tricky stuff.”