Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

A rebirth for Old Town?

Merchants, officials hope new shops help stimulate an economic resurgence in downtown area

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
A new shop, The Tranquil Soul, just opened in Old Town Takoma between empty storefronts on Westmoreland Avenue.
Several new businesses are opening in Old Town Takoma Park in the New Year, filling once-vacant storefronts and contributing to what officials and businesses owners hope will be a revitalization of the downtown commercial area.

Among the businesses are an eco-boutique, a yoga studio, a ballet company and a store that sells children’s items.

Roz Grigsby, executive director of the Old Takoma Business Association, said she hopes the new stores boost the area’s appeal and physical appearance.

‘‘We’re thrilled because we hate seeing vacancies,” she said.

In late December, Jen Finney and her husband, Quentin, opened The Tranquil Soul, a self-described ‘‘eco-boutique for mind, body and spirit,” in a previously empty storefront at 7014B Westmoreland Ave. The store sells ‘‘green” and ‘‘fair trade” products including clothes, handcrafted jewelry and air-purifying salt lamps.

The Finneys moved their business to Takoma Park from the Mall at Columbia, which Jen Finney said didn’t seem to be the best venue for their products.

‘‘Perhaps Columbia wasn’t ready for us,” she said.

Many of the store’s products are handmade, and Finney said she plans to exhibit the work of local artists.

Next to The Tranquil Soul, at 7014 Westmoreland Ave., a new contemporary ballet company, Echo Park, will open in the space that was once the ‘‘fair trade” store Sangha.

Executive Director Cedric Tillman said the studio hopes to open by the end of January and will be used as a training and performance center for dancers age 3 and older.

Two more businesses, a yoga studio and a children’s boutique, are primed to open near Takoma Junction.

Stephen Pleasant, owner of Bikram Yoga-Takoma Park, said construction of his studio at 7324 Carroll Ave. is 95 percent complete and he hopes to open by the end of January.

Tiffany King, owner of The Pajama Squid, which will feature children’s toys, books and clothes, plans to open her store at 7320 Carroll Ave. in March.

Pleasant, a District resident, and King, a Takoma Park resident, said Takoma Park was an appealing location.

‘‘I thought this would be the perfect place,” said King, who has lived in Takoma Park with her husband, Andrew, for five years. ‘‘There’re a lot of children, a lot of moms. ... I just love Takoma Park. It’s so creative, it has such a good feel about it. ”

Pleasant, a certified instructor who has practiced yoga since 1992, said he chose Takoma Park because it’s a community where ‘‘people are mindful of their health and wellness.”

‘‘Bottom line, Takoma Park supports this type of business,” he said. ‘‘... Takoma Park is very green and real funky, and these are the types of people who do yoga.”

Councilman Dan Robinson (Ward 3), who before his election served as chairman of OTBA’s economic restructuring committee, said filling vacant storefronts has been a ‘‘huge priority” for OTBA and the city.

‘‘The challenge for us as business owners is to make the city attractive and find businesses that will be viable long term,” said Robinson, who founded Sligo Computer Services in Takoma Park in 1985.

‘‘The commercial district keeps reinventing itself, and we need to reinvent ourselves so that it serves the needs of the people who live in Takoma Park and people who might want to come into Takoma Park from outside,” he said.

Residents walking around the Takoma Park Farmers Market in Old Town on Sunday said what the city’s commercial district really needs is more diversity in products and services.

‘‘The variety is lacking,” said Carla Komich, a Takoma Park resident for five years who said she would shop more in Old Town if it had a bookstore or another restaurant.

Her husband, Steve Moody, said he’s talked to many residents who want to shop locally, but can’t meet all their needs in Old Town’s gift stores and thrift shops.

Komich and Moody, who are in their 30s and have a young child, said they were happy to hear that a children’s store such as The Pajama Squid was moving into town.

Robinson said he’s heard the complaint that there are too many used-clothing stores in town, but defended those businesses as offering ‘‘green” products that are local and reusable.

Moody said he believes many Takoma Park residents are worried that different stores might change the town’s character, but as a consumer, he thinks bringing in different businesses is vital to Old Town’s future.

‘‘It’s going to wither on the vine if you don’t get more,” he said.

John R. Urciolo, a local developer and owner of about 52,000 square feet of office and retail space in Old Town, said any improvement has to be a joint effort between landlords and business owners.

Landlords need to ensure a mix of shops and businesses need to offer products that people want, he said.

‘‘That’s how these stores survive,” he said.

Urciolo said businesses in Old Town have struggled for years to get foot traffic and some have been pushed out because of high rents. He said empty storefronts are a deterrent to foot traffic, but said he doesn’t think the latest openings necessarily signal any improvement.

‘‘I think it’s the same struggle,” he said.