Tacky. That's the one word that keeps popping up in conversations describing Silver Spring's business district.
Once the shining leader in modern suburban shopping centers, Silver Spring is not a tarnished string of tacky stores and gray, litter-dotted streets. After 10 years of decay, however, it is desperately trying for a comeback.
"Silver Spring has a very bad image right now," said Dennis Ream, a state urban designer. "We're trying to do a lot to rekindle some interest. . .We hope to salvage the good that we have here."
"Silver Spring is not an area in which investors have had a high level of confidence," said architect Tim Minerd. "One part of that is the visual image. There's a difference in confidence investors have in the east side and the west side of Montgomery County."
But Silver Spring hasn't had much to boast about since retailers talked about "Silver Spring fever" back in the 1940s. A quick shot of urbanization in the 1960s was an antidote for whatever Silver Spring fever existed, and a sewer moratorium during most of this decade cured the fever for good.
In addition to Silver Spring's cosmetic problems, business people also complained about poor maintenance service for the state's largest unincorporated city.
"We need proper maintenance or it will continue to look the way it does now," said E. Brooke Lee III, president of the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. Lee remembered when a statuesque lighted clock, surrounded by a brick circular pathway, small shrubs and flowers was erected in downtown Silver Spring not long ago.
"A month and a half after the clock was up, we were supposed to have a dedication there," Lee said. "But there was more trash and weeds there than flowers."
And if that wasn't enough, shoppers left the business district for bright malls.
"When you see your shoppers leave to go to the malls and you see your area deteriorating. . .after 10 years of this, of being beaten down, you lose that pride," Lee said.
Then businesses fled with the shoppers, and other firms declined to enter the area. The prophets of profits turned away from the urban suburb for places such as Fairfax County, Bethesda and the District. Even the establishment of a Metro subway station, which has done wonders for other shopping areas around the beltway, had little effect on Silver Spring's shops.
But business boosters now point to new developments:
The city is embarking on a $3.5 million urban renewal project, including bricking in new sidewalks, planting trees and adding other cosmetic touches.
A large department store chain is considering locating a branch there.
A large major hotel chain in planning a 500-room hotel with the largest conference facilities in the area near the Silver Spring Metro subway station.
A 3,000-square-foot office building is planned near the Metro station to house the headquarters and office space of a major company.
Another six-story office building is under construction.
The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission is building an urban park and a 17-foot-high waterfall at the Metro site.
The park and planning office also is renovating an abandoned armory to house a farmer's market and conference space.
At least two murals will be painted on train overpasses and the side of a lumber yard.
Business people hope such ambitious plans will spark interest in the area, stop the outflow of businesses and set an example for other firms that Silver Spring is viable.
Business boosters point to large stores such as the J.C. Penney, Lerner Shops and Hahn shoes which recently renewed their leases, Lee said. In the past few years, six stores have left the business district, but have been replaced by four others, Lee said. The central business district is bounded by Spring Street, East-West Highway, and Burlington and Fenton streets.
Penny's and Fredland Jewelers on Colesville Rd. both increased their sales by luring subway riders down from the hilltop Metro site through special promotions and advertising, Lee said. The stores also assigned enough clerks to serve customers, he added, "They have not sat back and waited."
One of the new stores, the Rowe House, is markedly different from the older discount shops and dingy storefronts that line Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, the area's two main business corridors.
"There's a lot of foot traffic," said Betsey Rowe, owner of the Rowe House shop selling gold jewelry, handmade pottery, leather, plants and other goods. "I'm not complaining. A lot of business is word of mouth."
Rowe said she was aware of Silver Spring's reputation as a declining area and said she wasn't certain how well her shop would do. "Once people get the word, hopefully that's going to bring business in. And of course if you're in a mall, you've got to pay the price," she said.
Silver Spring's planners hope to transform Colesville road into an urban mall. The city long has given up trying to be a suburb. Many business people have faced the fact that it is urban. Lee said they hope to make Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue and surrounding streets as attractive as Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria with small specialty shops to attract browsers.
One problem Silver Spring faces is getting business to participate in changes. One example is the F Street shopping corridor in downtown Washington. Although the area was spruced up on the outside, its atmosphere still is relatively unpleasant.
Different planners and government agencies are investigating loan programs to help Silver Spring business people fix up their shops, Ream said. And the pressure to improve their businesses may affect those who don't.
"Bricks and mortar in and of themselves are not going to save Silver Spring," Read said."You need the interest of business and the commitment of people."