This Civil War-era county seat, once a sleepy commercial center for the surrounding farm community, has taken on new life in its historic center largely as the result of an ambitious rehabilitation program that began in the mid-1970s.
From a flood-prone, decaying business strip surrounded by run-down row houses a decade ago, the city center has grown into a newly prosperous commercial-residential area, with boutiques selling everything from designer clothes to wickerware. Small apartments in the revitalized area are rented by professional people, most of whom work in Frederick.
Credited by other city officials with bringing about much of the redevelopment is Ronald Young, 41, a former teacher who has been mayor since 1974. Young, who grew up in a row house downtown, channeled city money into refurbishing the historic district, having power lines buried along key thoroughfares, planting trees, and building a parking deck near city and county office buildings.
He also helped push through tax incentives for owners who rehabilitated downtown properties. But he says his most effective tactic was his support of ongoing private efforts at revitalization.
"I think one of several secrets in getting a town rolling is getting people going and the government at least staying out of the way . . . or at best facilitating what they're trying to do," he said. "We had what was called Operation Town Action, started in early '74.
"They had gotten the historic district approved. They had photos of buildings on the main streets and artists' conceptions of what they could look like if they were fixed up." he recalled. "Anything good that happened, we called it part of OTA. The street tree project -- I was going to do that anyway. But we called it OTA. The parking deck, everything. It was all part of OTA."
The strategy worked, Young said. About a 100 commercial buildings have now been redone, and are currently being used. The downtown, which had almost no restaurants before, now has a dozen. An old theater, the Weinberg Center, has been restored; the Francis Scott Key Hotel, a posh inn at the turn of the century that fell on hard times, has been turned into a retirement home.
Residences in the city's historic district -- which includes Civil War heroine Barbara Fritchie's residence and some structures dating from the early 1800s -- have been rehabilitated, and values have risen sharply, Young said. Properties in the town center appreciated 31 percent a year between 1978 and 1981, compared with 10.6 percent elsewhere in the city and 9.1 percent in the county, the mayor said.
The more than 2,000 Washington area residents who have moved into Frederick County each year since the early 1970s have affected the redevelopment significantly, Young said. Many of the newcomers have worked actively in the Frederick Historical Society and with other private groups that have aided the renovation, he said.
Young said an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the people living in downtown Frederick today came from outside the county and were attracted directly by the revitalization efforts.
In 1976, Frederick received the All-American City Award from the National Municipal League because of its urban renewal, historic preservation and citizen participation. This provided a focus for the Frederick Tourism Council established that year. Keying its pitch to the history and natural beauty of the area, it set up walking, cycling and driving tours, and began an aggressive media campaign.
So successful has the effort been, according to tourism director Sonia Maher, that tourism in the county has risen 350 percent in the past five years, bringing in about $7.5 million a year in direct revenues. The typical tourist spends about $35 in the county, she said. Five years ago there was only one hotel with more than 100 rooms; today there are three, she said.
The center city has also been a big draw for industry, in Young's view. More than half of the 70 businesses that have opened or expanded in the past five years with the help of the county's economic development commission have located inside the city limits, he said.
"It's far more important than people realize in attracting new employment," he said. "We're looking to attract high technology. These are sophisticated people. They want to move somewhere where the streets are safe, the school system is decent. It's real important to put the whole package together."
The revitalization has not been without its snags, however. Attorney Glenn Michel, a member of the city board of zoning appeals, contends that many downtown properties are over-priced now because of speculation that resulted from the preservation effort. And the current building slump that has hit the nation as a whole has slowed the rehabilitation of unfinished buildings, at least temporarily. As a result, boarded-up buildings can still be seen in the downtown.
But with plans on the drawing boards for a park and commercial complex to be built in the next 20 years along Carroll Creek, which runs through the city, Young is optimistic about the future of the downtown. Construction of a 600-car parking deck will start next spring, and a pavilion is planned for the stream-side park, along with apartments, office buildings and retail stores.
But, in the long run, "What we're really trying to do here is one of those intangible things," Young said. "We're trying to get people to reestablish their community identity. We're trying to establish feeling and identity and uniqueness."