Cumberland Times-News

May 11, 2013

Businesses, DDC debate issues facing downtown

Special tax, opening portion of mall to traffic, parking among topics discussed

Greg Larry
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — About two dozen individuals with ownership interests in Cumberland’s downtown attended a first-ever meeting with the Downtown Development Commission on Thursday where many passionate exchanges occurred on a variety of topics that included capping a special tax to opening a portion of the mall to vehicle traffic and parking.

“I think is was a really good opportunity. It’s something we have been thinking about doing for a while,” said Doug Schwab, a DDC member.

Arranged by the DDC, the meeting was a first effort in what the group hopes becomes an annual gathering. Referred to as stakeholders, property owners pay a special tax to the DDC for the maintenance, beautification, marketing and other functions of the downtown.

The downtown mall is a special taxing area that receives services that don’t fall under the responsibility of the city of Cumberland. Taxes collected by the DDC total around $215,000 annually.

 Conducting the meeting, which was held at 9 N. Center St., was DDC chairwoman Sandy Saville. Some of the stakeholders traveled long distances to be at the event.

“Overall, I think it went very well. Even though opinions vary across the board, it was good for everyone to communicate,” said Jennifer Light, the co-manager of the downtown mall.

Several stakeholders still maintain that the mall, particularly at the east end, should be opened up for at least one-way traffic and some parking spots.

“Until you do something to open up the mall, it’s going to be difficult,” said Larry Jackson of the Western Maryland Music Center.

“It’s a perception, just seeing the headlights down there can help,” said Jackson.

“People don’t have access to the stores,” said Lisa Peskin.

Jackson, Peskin and Frank Fry of Morton’s Jewelers, all also favored removing the planters from the mall.

“Eliminate the planters and let it be a green space. They are not attractive,” said Jackson.

Fry said more towns and cities are favoring a streetscape-style downtown.

Saville said that opening some portion of the mall was not favored politically in the past.

“We have a different administration now. Maybe we can look again,” said Saville.

Jan Wunderlick, another stakeholder, echoed another position of Jackson: the removal of parking meters.

“We don’t want people exiting the city because of parking,” said Wunderlick.

The city takes in $125,000 annually through the meters. However, many find it a deterrent for potential customers.

Wunderlick said she had seen where other municipalities are eliminating parking meters.

Doug Schwab has been concerned over the burden the DDC’s special tax places on the stakeholders by forcing them, as he sees it, to foot the bill for the entire daily operating functions of the mall.

“I don’t think it should be up to the businesses to bear the total responsibility for the mall. It doesn’t provide an incentive for business,” he said.

Schwab said many businesses are mom and pop stores and several are not doing well. The tax is based on the assessed value of the property and can be a substantial amount.

 “We need to provide incentives for people to have businesses downtown. There needs to be a cap on the tax. The more we invest, the more we pay,” said Schwab.

Friday after Five, a weekly concert series that begins in late spring and runs through summer, was another topic of discussion.

“Before when FAF was happening, I did 25 percent better,” said Lee Schwartz of The Book Center.

“In the last five years, it’s not been that. The crowd has changed,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz said some of the Saturday and Sunday events were also not bringing in shoppers.

Nicole Wagoner, a city council member and director of sales for the Fairfield Inn, spoke in favor of the concert series.

“It’s a selling tool for me. We are able to direct people over there. Iā€ˆattribute that to Ed Mullaney (downtown manager),” said Wagoner.

Saville recognized the need for the stakeholders to feel they are getting benefits for the special tax.

“We know you want your tax to improve things and make it better for you,” said Saville.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com