We were among those for a time who resisted the idea of tearing up the bricks on the downtown pedestrian mall and reopening Baltimore Street to traffic.
But we also knew that something had to change, and the solution would have to involve more than just “Let’s open the mall and see if business starts booming!”
We now are satisfied that the matter is being handled by people who have put considerable thought into it and know what they’re doing.
A new plan for the downtown has been in the works for some time and was recently unveiled. We are optimistic that it can combine what once was good about Baltimore Street with what is good today, thus allowing us to echo what was said by the poet Robert Browning: “The best is yet to be.” (See: “Officials pin hopes on downtown mall redesign,” April 8 Times-News, Page 1A.)
Having seen the vigorous activity that was associated with Baltimore Street when it was a thriving commercial area and the sidewalks were packed with people who were there for any number of reasons, we were saddened to watch it decline.
Businesses emigrated from the downtown to the suburban malls — as they also left other towns and cities across the country — and it eventually was decided to make Baltimore Street a pedestrian mall.
That worked in some ways, but not in others. The mall became a great place to visit — tourists and locals both loved it — but not necessarily a great place to do business, or even to shop.
It’s not 1955 any more. The big department stores that once lined Baltimore Street aren’t coming back, but we can draw heart from the fact that once-barren downtowns around America have found ways to draw new types of businesses and other attractions that make people want to go there.
They’re using methods like those we are about to begin applying in Cumberland.
It’s happening in big cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, but smaller towns like Marietta, Ohio; Buckhannon, West Virginia; and Berlin and Havre de Grace in Maryland also are enjoying a self-generated vitality.
You can find a list of America’s 50 best small town downtowns at Best Choice Reviews’ website, https://www.bestchoicereviews.org/50-best-small-town-downtowns-in-america.
Best Choice Reviews says, “Gone are the days of a downtown area with a post office, market and police department. What has taken the place of this outdated notion are unique and eclectic downtown areas full of energy, entertainment and accessibility for Americans of all ages. Small towns have become the central gathering places for residents and visitors of the many small towns and cities across the country.”
That exactly what we want for our small city of Cumberland.
It became inevitable that the downtown would have to change in at least some respects. After much discussion and passionate argument on both sides, it was decided to reopen Baltimore Street to traffic.
Cumberland’s officials didn’t take this decision lightly, because they knew that a lot of what existed on the brickyard mall was good, and they were hesitant to interfere heavy-handedly with it.
People loved the opportunity to stroll around, dine outside, rest on the benches, enjoy the flower sales and farmer’s markets, the motorcycle and car displays, the concerts and other activities … all without having to dodge cars.
The Times-News received scads of letters from locals and tourists who said, “Please don’t mess up the downtown!”
The brickyard worked in some ways, but came up short in others.
In his column of June 25, 2018, Allegany County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stuart Czapski said 41% of the downtown merchants interviewed said they would consider moving if conditions warranted it and another 20% were giving it serious consideration at the time.
However, if something was done each year to make conditions better than the year before, they most likely would reconsider staying.
Fixing it would be neither easy nor cheap. Our people began looking to see what worked elsewhere. The answer they found lies in combining the best of downtown’s worlds — the old and the new.
We’re tired of hearing people say that Cumberland has seen its better days.
You won’t hear that from us. Although we’ve sometimes disagreed with the form it has taken, we’ve frequently talked about how our city continues to demonstrate that it still has a fighting spirit and is keen on finding ways to renovate itself.
It may be that one day Cumberland will crack that list of 50 best small town downtowns.
You can see the mall redesign by going to https://www.choosecumberland.org and clicking on “CEDC Releases the Baltimore Street Redevelopment Plan.”