The Frederick News-Post
By: Samantha Hogan
At the heart of Mount Airy was the B&O Railroad, and as the town prepares to complete a master plan of its downtown, some residents are looking back at the community’s beginnings as guidance for its future.
“You have to understand and get what is unique about your community, your location,” said Bill Butts, a Mount Airy resident who served on the Downtown Master Plan review committee. “For us, clearly, part of it is the fact that the train came through here.”
After reviewing 10 bids and interviewing four design companies, the Town Council unanimously approved a bid from the Baltimore-based company Design Collective for $121,200 on Monday. The plan will look at the buildings, roads and businesses that make up the historic downtown and lay out a vision for growing while still preserving it.
Design Collective does not discuss bids and declined to comment when reached by phone.
“They’re very cognizant of history and our specific history,” Town Administrator Monika Weierbach said.
The town bought the original 1,700-square-foot train station in its downtown a year ago and began interior renovations, which are expected to be completed at the end of February. The station’s parking lot hosts the Mount Airy Farmers Market, and the first phase of Rails to Trails follows the B&O rail line from the Carroll County side of town to the lot.
Connecting all these historic features while also expanding the business and retail opportunities on Main Street and Center Street will be what Design Collective and the residents of Mount Airy will tackle next.
Design Collective’s innovative approach to community outreach is what sold the review committee on its bid, Weierbach said.
The company worked with the city of Frederick in the early 2000s to design the East Street corridor where the MARC train station, East Street parking garage, Frederick County Public Schools headquarters and Interstate 70 connection are now, said Richard Griffin, the city of Frederick’s director of economic development.
“No one had really seen the city from that perspective before,” Griffin said.
Residents and Design Collective held workshops on the project over several days, and public comment significantly influenced the final plan.
“Any time the public is involved, you get some out-of-the-box ideas that frankly you wouldn’t get without them,” Griffin said.
The city does not endorse specific design groups that it has worked with in the past, but the city has seen the benefits of having a coordinated plan in place rather than taking a piecemeal approach to projects, Griffin said.
Mount Airy’s staff plans to sit down with Design Collective this month to strategize, and then over the next nine months, to host workshops and community outreach events, Weierbach said.
Residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of the Flat Iron building, parking, utilities, business growth and a connection between Center Street and Md. 27. After the plan is in hand, Weierbach said she hoped the town would continue to have a relationship with Design Collective to complete the vision.
“We wanted something realistic. We don’t want this pie-in-the-sky plan that can’t be executed,” Weierbach said.
For residents like Butts, who worked on Mount Airy’s 2013 Master Plan update, the focus on downtown has been a long time coming. And the trains that brought industry and people to Mount Airy is a history that can’t be forgotten.
Steam engines arrived in Mount Airy in 1831 seeking to cross the steep ridges between Baltimore and Frederick, said Cliff Beck, a lifelong Mount Airy resident and train enthusiast.
His father, Herman B. Beck, wrote “The Mt. Airy and B&O Story,” which chronicles the B&O construction and westward expansion. And Cliff Beck is preparing an exhibit on the topic for the museum slated for the refurbished downtown train station.
The B&O tried three times to cross the ridge that Mount Airy sits upon.
First, crews used planes and winches to pull the train cars up and over the hill.
Then, in 1839, the town’s original resident, Henry Bussard, sold the land for the train station and downtown rail system, which lowered the slope by 80 to 100 feet and allowed steam engines to pump up and over the hill on their own. This transformed the rural landscape from a pass-through stop between Baltimore and Frederick to a thriving town where people flocked to get fresh air.
“I don’t think it would have been as prosperous as it is. The railroad brought a lot of activity to town,” Beck said.
Finally, at the turn of the century, the B&O tunneled under the ridge and slowly the use of downtown tracks disappeared.
Now, Mount Airy is trying to determine how to turn a long history into a strong future.
Weierbach said the town staff was looking for a way to provide sustainability to downtown both from a business and environmental perspective. Adding and retaining businesses that draw people to downtown Mount Airy will be a major part of that goal.
In the coming months, the town may also form a steering committee to oversee the planning process.
“Part of this is to keep what’s special and unique in place and — at the same time — what are the opportunity to expand that,” Butts said.
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