"The Route," as U.S. Rte. 1 is called as it runs through College Park, is a strip haphazardly lined with bookstores, sub shops, photocopying stores, pizza joints and other fast food hangouts -- all typical of a town that sits in the shadow of a large university. Many older stores, landmarks in the community, are squeezed in oddly next to renovated places bright with neon signs and state-of-the-art decor.
However, a new look is in store for the heart of College Park's aging commercial district -- a four-block stretch between the University of Maryland and Guilford Road.
The town, in an attempt to improve and unify its piecemeal appearance, has launched revitalization efforts that are being touted by town and county officials as the first major united effort involving the private and public sectors.
College Park's revitalization efforts are similar to programs under way in other municipalities along the Rte. 1 strip in Prince George's County, which runs from Laurel to Mount Rainier at the District line.
The College Park business district "forms the major impression of Prince George's County for many visitors because of the attraction of the University of Maryland," County Executive Parris Glendening recently told a group of merchants and town and county officials gathered to learn details of two new projects aimed at revitalizing the area.
Merchants and county officials say the shopping district in College Park holds great potential for bringing in more revenue because of a large segment of the population linked to the university. Besides the town's 25,000 residents, there are approximately 44,000 students, staff and faculty on or attached to the campus. About 50,000 cars pass through the town each day.
As an incentive for merchants to modernize their storefronts, the county, the town and Suburban Bank are sponsoring a program to offer loans to business owners at 4 1/2 percent below the prime lending rate. The loans -- up to $10,000 per linear foot of an establishment -- must be used to pay for external improvements, such as new signs, exterior painting, awnings and shrubs.
The first business in College Park's central commercial area to take advantage of the low-interest loan program was the Bagel Place, a 10-month-old restaurant at College Avenue and Rte. 1. The owners used a loan to construct a new outdoor eating area, where they say they will put tables and umbrellas, install a canopy and plant trees and shrubs.
The town will subsidize 4 percent of the interest on the loans from its general fund. The county will provide a collateral account of $25,000 to back up the loans, and Suburban Bank, which has a branch on Rte. 1 in the area to be revitalized, will provide the loans at 1/2 percent below the prime rate.
"I believe projects such as this should have some stimulus from the government as well as the support of the business community . . . . That is exactly what we see unfolding here," Glendening said.
At R.J. Bentley's, a restaurant in the 7300 block of Rte. 1, John Brown, one of the owners, said he hopes to obtain one of the revitalization loans to enclose an outdoor eating area in front of the establishment. Brown, who is vice chairman of the town's economic development committee, said, "Every business has need for some improvement . . . . The loans certainly facilitate us making the improvements."
The county has allocated $166,000 in federal community development block grant funds for "streetscape" improvements, which include construction of a three-foot-high brick wall along the sidewalk that borders the congested Rte. 1. Such a wall stretches along Rte. 1 at the boundary of the university, but it stops where the university ends and the town begins. Officials said they hope the wall will help unify the appearance of the town and university.