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Annapolis’ Main Street in a slow transition

Annapolis’ Main Street in a slow transition

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ANNAPOLIS — The many downtown windows plastered with public-notice signs from the city depict a Main Street in transition.

American Craftworks Collection, a gallery of fine crafts, and Paradigm, a trendy clothing boutique, are set to close when their leases expire. For American Craftworks, that means rounding up its liquidation by the end of the month, and for Paradigm, before the end of January.

The recession has whittled away at the street’s mix of merchants, but the remaining businesses are hopeful that several newcomers with plans to open this spring will help revitalize the community.

Jessica Jordan Paret has an interesting perspective on the issue. Not only is she the owner of Paradigm, the store now on its way out, but she’s also the president of the Annapolis Business Association. Her term comes to an end this month.

Despite the usual conflicts reported by struggling downtown businesses, Paret doesn’t fault the stringent city codes or permitting process, limited availability of parking or steep rent for her decision.

“For me, closing is really a personal decision,” she said. “As ABA president, I spent a lot of time working with the city on solutions to a lot of those issues. I take full responsibility for all of the things that went right with Paradigm and also all of the things that are going wrong.”

Paret, who once was the chief financial officer of the Maryland State Board of Elections, began her venture into retail in August 2007. Originally her plan was to have two stores open by this time, then another two stores by 2012.

But the sluggish market prevented her from expanding the business. It wasn’t long after her launch that the economy took a nosedive and changed the way consumers spent.

“In this economy, breaking even, or doing a little better than breaking even, means you’re doing very well,” Paret said. “I don’t think that’s sustainable or fulfilling for me.”

Paret said she feels the downtown business community is in good hands, with plenty of new arrivals to shake things up: Red Red Wine Bar; Jimmy John’s, a sandwich shop franchise moving into the old Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store; and WHEAT, a Scandinavian children’s organic clothing retailer.

At the same time, developers believe they’ll complete the renovations and construction for 178 and 180 Main St. by spring. The buildings will offer two first-floor retail units and four office condominiums with a glass corridor, courtyard and waterfall dividing them.

Brian Bolter, a Washington, D.C., news anchor who will co-own Red Red Wine Bar with his wife, Lisa, said their vision is to make wine accessible to the average customer. The bar, which also will feature a restaurant and music, will have user-friendly menus categorized by basic flavor profiles.

But he admits the endeavor is a long process. He and his wife began the business plan in July 2009 and hope they’ll receive all of the necessary city approvals in time to open in May. The construction will overhaul the vacancy, turning a former retail space into one with a commercial kitchen.

Bolter said that when they officially began their search for a location, they considered options that may, in retrospect, have been easier for the start-up, such as West Street. In the end, they chose Main Street for what it represents: the center for art, music and cuisine, he said.

“It is a challenging process, and I think that everybody knows that there has been some attrition on Main Street. The economy has taken its toll, and I think the barriers to Main Street are pretty well documented,” Bolter said. “We are bullheaded enough to think that we can do it — and we can.”

Kyle Murphy, the operator of the upcoming Annapolis franchise of Jimmy John’s, started working on the deal to open his first store on Main Street in July. He also hopes to navigate the approval process in time to get the restaurant open in March.

With his father and sister as partners in the business, the Cambridge, Mass., man is looking forward to moving to Annapolis next month to roll up his sleeves. He has been forewarned about the difficulty of meeting the standards of building and operating in the historic district, but, like Bolter, that wasn’t going to stop him.

“I think it’s perfect for us,” Murphy said. “You’ve got the Naval Academy at one end and the [state] Capitol at the other, making a good customer base. Then with the tourist population in the summer, it just makes it even more diverse.”

To take full advantage of the many law offices, government workers and merchants downtown, he also plans to offer bicycle delivery services.

Ken Morrell, the developer whose 178 and 180 Main St. project has scaffolding cluttering the north side of the street, said he has grown accustomed to the waiting game when it comes to navigating the approval system. The current construction efforts have been under way for 2½ years because of the complicated changes involved.

“We’re very quiet developers, but I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I have patience,” Morrell said.

For the owners of WHEAT, Main Street was the obvious choice for their U.S. flagship store.

Wahib Wahba, an Annapolis resident who is at the helm of Global Partners and Global Maritime, decided to dip into the retail market last year when he became the U.S. licensee.

So what makes a man in railway machinery supplies and ocean cargo shipping decide to delve into kids’ clothes?

While he was away on business travel in the Middle East and Europe, Wahba had a layover in Copenhagen, Denmark. Looking for souvenirs at the airport for his children, he stopped in a WHEAT store.

He found the merchandise so different from the typical that he went asked the cashier how to contact the company’s corporate executives about possible business opportunities.

The rest is history. In its first year of operation, WHEAT-USA already has 56 stores.

Though all of the new business owners touted optimism for their relationship with city officials and residents, whether the community will rally support for their ventures remains to be seen.

Bolter, who had followed the recent 2 a.m. bar license issue and observed the dissent from residents, said he saw a missed opportunity in the discourse.

“I think that in the process, ironically, it sort of stalled what could have been solutions to that,” he said. “There was such a clear consensus of what people didn’t want, but it left a void of what people did want for downtown.”

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