At a time when many small, neighborhood shopping complexes are being forgotten, residents near Westover Shopping Center in Arlington are working to preserve the shopping center as a community meeting place.

The shopping center, which stretches along the 5800 block of Washington Blvd., has the essentials for any small-town main street - a bank, a grocery, a bakery, a post office. All that, say residents, helps provide a community identity. With that in mind, the residents and businessmen at the center have been working to rejuvenate the center.

Community interest has spurred the owners of the shopping center to begin a major revitalization program. The same spirit has infected the Arlington County Board, which last month appropriated $50,000 to improve sidewalks and the alley at the center.

The interest by residents, businessmen and government illustrates a growing movement in Arlington County to ensure that the character of individual neighborhoods is protected from decay caused by age or destruction by major redevelopment.

The character of Westover is praised by businessmen as well as residents.

"Westover is more like a little country town," says Curtis Morgan, manager of Morgans Hair Stylist in the shopping center. "People know each other here."

Morgan, who has been in Westover 18 years and at the hair salon 16 years, said his customers include a mixture of age and income levels, but more than 75 percent are from the neighborhood. A major draw, he says, is that most businesses are locally owned. "People like to be with people they know."

Westover is unusual in the metropolitan area, according to William McGillicuddy, owner and manager of the Westover Exxon station in the center. While local shopping areas in "other metro counties are deteriorating," he said, business is growing in Westover.

McGillicuddy said his business has almost doubled in the past several years and most of it comes from local sources, fostered by a strong community identity with the shopping center.

Much of that identity was developed by John W. Ayers, the unofficial mayor of Westover who owned a variety store in the center for 28 years. Ayers died in August 1976, but many residents still remember him, his fondness for children and his devotion to the communtity.

Ayers was a "unique individual with a fantastic reputation who grew with the community," said Ronald Kaplan, the new owner of the J.W. Ayers 5 & 10 Cents Store. "(Customers here) are far friendlier and concerned than in other areas, and I'm sure a good portion of that is because of Mr. Ayers."

Most businessmen in the shopping center agree that business is good, although not spectacular. As R.Y. Watson, manager of the Westover Clarendon Bank and Trust, said, the center "appears to be doing real well," but the revitalization project is needed "to keep things going."

Jack Jones, who with his brother Ashton and cousing Morrell Stone, owns the center, said his family decided to go ahead with the revitalization project because of "pride in ownership." Jones' family has owned the center since the first construction at the center began more than 30 years ago.

The project will cost $350,000 to $400,000 and will include installation of decorative lighting, pedestrian walkways and standard signs for businesses. Rear parkways and loading facilities will be improved and the main building of the center will be refaced. The work is expected to be completed by this summer.

Despite his commitment, Jones credited local civic groups and the Arlington County planning division with getting the project off the ground.

Virginia Ray, a leader of the local group, said she and her neighbors were stirred to action because "we needed the shopping center, but it was no longer an asset to the community."

Before local groups began a beautification project, which included planting trees and flowers in the area, the center was suffering from falling bricks, unsightly doors, bad pavements and a trash and litter disposal problem, she said.

James Snyder, an urban planner for the county, said the county became involved in the project as a "catalyst" to draw other interested groups together. Maintaining neighborhood shopping centers such as Westover is vital to the county, he said.

"If an area like Westover becomes a commercial slum, what happens to housing?" he asked. "These first suburban shopping centers . . . must adjust to serve the neighborhood or it will become a low-rent service area."

But how does a small shopping center such as Westover compete in a world filled with giant suburban shopping malls?

According to McGillicuddy, customers like the intimacy of the 13 stores in Westover, instead of a large impersonal mall.

"(It's) a much more pleasant way to conduct business," he said, "both from the merchants' and the customers' point of view. It's one-on-one.