Maryland city hums a lively new tune. What happened to Frederick? People with pride pitched in

`OF course, you can reshape your community!'' say the people of Frederick, Md. They've done it. Folks have built and rebuilt, restored and preserved. They've revitalized their downtown, refurbished the historic district, improved their neighborhoods, and made the town hum a lively new tune.

Founded in 1745 by English and German settlers, Frederick was a frontier town that later served the wagon trains, heading west across the mountains. Noted early residents included Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem, and Barbara Fritchie, courageous Civil War heroine, immortalized in poetry.

Today Frederick has a population of 38,000. Forty-five miles from both Baltimore and Washington, it's attracting more visitors each year, who come to take in its gentle grace and charm.

Still, just 15 years ago Frederick was described by some citizens as ``boring and dreary,'' and there was little activity at night in the downtown area.

But today it's bright and buzzing with new shops, galleries, and restaurants. In June, Frederick was one of three United States cities to receive a City Livability Award from the US Conference of Mayors. Portland, Ore., and Burlington, Vt., were the others.

The rejuvenation began when Ronald N. Young took office as mayor in 1973. With the help of local citizens, he launched a grass-roots redevelopment project, called Operation Town Action.

They managed to persuade civic groups, businessmen, and state and federal agencies to invest in Frederick's future.

``Pride in the town was flagging,'' Mr. Young remembers. ``The downtown was dying. The city appeared to have lost its identity. But I felt sure that involved people could bring it back.''

He quickly established a ``volunteerism department'' and began to recruit hundreds of willing townspeople to work on both long-term and short-term projects, including festival and arts advisory committees and other committees designed to promote the city.

Volunteers are central to the city's progress, and fortunately, the mayor says, ``we have the kind of people who want to do things and to make the right kinds of changes.''

The city went on to plant and maintain 500 donated trees, bury downtown cables, and build parking garages. Merchants in the historic district, which had been previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were persuaded to refurbish their buildings. Colonial, Federal, and Romanesque architectural styles are represented in the 33-block dis-trict.

When the only downtown movie theater closed a dozen years ago, the building was converted into the Weinberg Center for the Performing Arts. It's home to the Maryland Regional Ballet Company and the Frederick Symphony Orchestra.

Recently the mayor, who is a native of Frederick, summed up the city's renaissance this way:

``We reestablished the town's identity. We kept government agencies and most of the business community downtown. We improved neighborhoods by spending lots of public money on keeping streets up and improving lighting and safety.

``And we discovered that people don't mind spending their own money on restoring or improving their homes or business properties when they feel this kind of support and protection.''

To show off the town's 18th- and 19th-century buildings, the Frederick Visitors Center offers a printed guide to historical sites, as well as walking tours on weekends.

Visitors discover the pleasure of simply strolling around the city, looking into shops, admiring old houses, and stopping occasionally to ponder church spires and small gardens.

Under way is a six-year plan to construct a 1.2-mile linear park along a creek that runs through the center of town. It will be the largest municipal project the city has ever attempted. In addition to a conventional hall and arts center, the park will be lined with a mix of new and rehabbed older buildings, opening up cultural, residential, retail, and office space.

Another force in Frederick's renewal is G.Bernard Callan, who since 1973 has been chairman of the Historic District Commission, which he describes as ``a sort of quality-control mechanism for the downtown city and the historic area.''

``We try to monitor changes - alterations, new construction, and all signs - to make sure they are in keeping with the design of the city and its architectural styles,'' Mr. Callan says.

Callan credits much success for Frederick's revival to ``educating its citizens to the value, both economically and aesthetically, of historic preservation, and to instilling in them a sense of its history and heritage.''

He says that scarcely a week goes by that he does not speak on the topic to civic groups, students in local schools, and groups of visitors - such as members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and people involved with the trust's Main Street program for the revival of downtown areas of small towns.

All along its path to recovery, the city has received much national and state recognition. In 1976, Frederick was named an All-American City by the National League of Cities and was designated a ``Tree City USA'' in 1980.

The governor of Maryland cited Mayor Young in 1983 for his successful efforts in revitalizing the historic district. And state officials use the city as an example of local initiative in rebuilding a healthy economic climate.

James Rouse, a developer of Baltimore's Harborplace and other famous urban retail market centers across the country, calls Frederick ``the best example of small city revitalization in the USA.''

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