At first glance, Colmar Manor seems to be a town in a time warp. The small frame houses shield their inhabitants behind lace-curtained windows. Children play quietly between parked cars on the narrow neat streets. The town's workers leave the area each day for jobs in the District or in Prince George's; its senior citizens join in community activities.
Isolated in a pocket formed by Fort Lincoln Park on the south, the Anacostia River and a steep hillside on the north and east and Bladensburg Road on the west, the 1,750 residents of Colmar Manor live quietly in an atmosphere that has changed little since the town was founded in 1927.
Yet for the past five years this working class town has been embarked on a venture into the present. Through urban renewal and community block grant funds, its citizens have rehabilitated many of the more delapidated houses. They have built new sidewalks and streets, and now they are about to begin the last and most ambitious phase of their 10-year plan - the redevelopment of their business district.
Now a strip of empty lots and boarded, windowless buildings with the few remaining working establishments scattered in between, the Colmar Manor business district along Bladensburg Road was once littered with bars, pool halls and "gin mills."
"In the '60s, said Steve Robair, manager of the D & D Tire Company located on the strip, "you could go to the Dixie Pig (bar) and get a drink and a fight all for $1. There were so many bars and it was such a rough area that women still won't come into this neighborhood after dark."
"In 1967 Mayor Elgin Yost looked at the town and saw its deteriorated condition and knew something had to be done to upgrade it," said current mayor Edward Mutchler. "We saw we needed to progress to keep from degenerating any further."
In 1968 the mayor and town council began the long and arduous process of moving through the red tape of the federal government for redevelopment funds. After approval came in 1970 and an amendment was approved to the plan in 1972, HUD finally gave the little town more than $9 million for its sidewalks, streets, park and rehabilitation projects, including money to acquire and demolish the property along Blandensburg Road.
But it wasn't until 1976 that the streets were repaved, and even today, the only street signs visible are handlettered by the town's administrator. The land along Bladensburg Road still lies undeveloped, and, because the town owns most of it, no taxes can be levied on it.
The town blames the delay in redevelopment on the State Highway Administration, which has had plans since the late '60s to widen and limit the access to Blandensburg Road. "This could have been done two years ago, but for them," said George Beauchamp, town administrator.
Because the town has steadily increased the pressure on the SHA, Beauchamp said, they will soon complete the road right-of-way negotiations, and, after the Maryland Park and Planning Commission has approved the design plans for the new development, "the new gateway to Prince George's" will begin construction.
"The new face of Colmar Manor will be a surprise to people," said Edward Brooks, the leasing agent and "idea" man for the $15 million project. Brooks' plans for a two-phased development of the area includes a new town [WORD ILLEGIBLE] bank, food store, drug store, service station, restaurants and a 33,000 square foot office building.
Phase one, which includes the liquor store, gas and go, the office building, bank, a quick-serve store and two fast food stores - all in neat dark red brick, with plenty of parking and lots of trees - should be completed within one year, according to Brooks. Groundbreaking ceremonies are now scheduled for July.
"We were most enthusiastic about Brooks' proposal," said Beauchamp. "Several proposals were offered, but we're not downtown Chicago, and Colmar Manor is not Georgetown. Why, some of them proposed a shopping area that none of our residents could afford to go into."
The residents of Colmar Manor have been slow to warm up to all this "progress." Mutchler said that in the early '70s, when low interest loans were offered by the town to residents who needed to fix up their homes, few came around. "They were apprehensive about letting a Prince George's County housing inspector into the homes to get a full code inspection. Seniors who were eligible would not fill out the applications until others went before them and they could see what was being accomplished."
At least 60 percent of town's 400 families did some refurbishing using several funds . "Now the people here are really interested in helping themselves," said Beauchamp. "They have attitude that if we can get it done by ourselves, let's do it."
Residents of the town, who are generally in support of the new development, say they have been hearing about the new business district for so long they will be surprised when it happens. "We feel it would really help the town," said Glen Larsen, a member of the Colmar Manor Civic Association. "Anything would look better, because it is a complete eyesore."
Jim Lewis, whose L & M Boat Shop is one of the last businesses on the strip that the town has not yet purchased, said his business "has been screwed up for seven years because of redevelopment. It's cut our business in half." Lewis plans to stay on his property and build a new shop at the back of his store. "Most of the oldtimers have sold out - gotten their money and gone. It's been a helluva hassle for us."
With the influx of new people into homes that were built under redevelopment along the eastern edge of town, and with many of the town's older residents dying or leaving the area, Colmar Manor is trying to hold its own against any change.
"But we are trying to rejuvenate an old town," said Charles Joekel Sr., a 52-year-old resident who has lived in the same house since he was three months old. "And now, under community development, we are hit with taxes. In the past two years, our [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] ssments went up 15 to 20 percent. We're trying to get back on our feet and they're making it harder for us. It is unfair for this town.
"Once we get the commercial development," Joeckel continued, "you are going to see a big change in this town."
The residents of Colmar Manor are generally optimistic in that they see the change around them permitting their lives to remain the same.
"What they've been living with the past 25 years is abhorrent," said Brooks. "We're taking a little extra time and doing it right.
"There is only one future for Colmar Manor and that's up," said Brooks. "This town has a lot of heart."