by James Rada, Jr., photography by Bill Ryan
Look at Mount Airy on a map and you’ll notice a couple interesting things. First, if you cross much of South Main Street, you will be walking from Frederick County to Carroll County. Second, if you look at the greater Mount Airy area, there’s a place to the south on Lakeview Drive where four counties – Carroll, Frederick, Howard, and Montgomery – come together.
“Some properties are split in half,” said Town Administrator Monika Weierbach.
At times, the town of roughly 9,400 has a split personality. Mount Airy has two different tax rates. Its students go to two different school systems. When it completed its comprehensive plan, it was reviewed by both the Carroll and Frederick County planning departments.
And it looks like things will stay that way.
“We talked about building a bi-county high school at one time, but it didn’t happen,” said Weierbach.
Despite the split personality, Weierbach said that Mount Airy identifies more with Carroll County since more of the town, including the town offices are located within its boundaries. She also noted that financially the town is more connected to Carroll.
“We’re a bedroom community to Baltimore so people aren’t really concerned about whether they’re in Carroll County or Frederick,” said Weierbach.
Main Street Manager Ashley Collier agreed, saying that the business community looks at Mount Airy as a whole not parceled out by county.
“We’re part of both counties,” Collier said. “They both treat us well and we participate in events in both counties.
The key is the residents see themselves as part of Mount Airy rather than part of any county.
“When they come in, I don’t know where they’re from unless they say,” said Eric Smith with Patapsco Bicycle, which is located on the Carroll County side of Mount Airy.
“We’re part of Mount Airy. That’s what’s important,” said Tina Miller, co-owner of a A Do or Dye Salon and Day Spa.
In fact, even if asked where they lived, customers would most likely reply Mount Airy without saying which county. For residents, it’s all about being part of Mount Airy.
“We have a very active and huge base of volunteers who are super dedicated to the town,” Weierbach said.
That pool of talent dedicates itself to improving the town. For instance, the volunteers created the Celtic festival for the town (no matter which county they live in) and grew it from 5,000 attendees to more than 12,000 in just a few years.
“We’re not one or the other,” Weierbach said. “We’re Mount Airy and we’ve always been that way.”
In spirit perhaps, but originally Mount Airy, a town that grew up around a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train station, was entirely in Frederick County. Established in 1830, it predates the establishment of Howard (1851) and Carroll counties (1837). This means that someone in 1837 deliberately chose to draw the county line for the newly forming Carroll County down the middle of Main Street.
Recovering from the fire
Back in September 2007, Stefanie Scranton stood on one side of Main Street in Mount Airy watching her business, A Do or Dye Salon and Day Spa, burn. Scranton’s wasn’t the only business that burned that day. Besides A Do or Dye, Dj Vu, Inspiration Point, Laurienzo Brick Oven Cafe, Olde Town Restaurant and Retro-Metro, were all destroyed or displaced.
“I thought we were done,” said Tina Miller, co-owner of A Do or Dye along with Scranton.
Nine years later, a new red-brick building has risen from the ashes filled with some of the displaced businesses and some new ones. A Do of Dye is twice the size that it was before the fire and employs more people. Laurienzo and Olde Town Restaurant have a steady stream of customers enjoying their menu items. Inspiration Point had a group of people waiting for the store to open on the day I visited, and Retro Metro thrives at a new location a block away.
“We’re definitely better off than we were,” Miller said. “The old building was historic so it had no elevator and that could deter some older customers.”
For about a year after the fire, A Do or Dye and some of the other businesses operated out of trailers. The State of Maryland gave the town a community legacy grant, which the town then refunded back to the businesses to help them recover from the fire, according to Town Administrator Monika Weierbach.
Then the town used a Carroll County Economic Development $100,000 grant to set up a temporary business park in the parking lot of the old rail yard, which is the time when the businesses operated out of trailers. Rob Scranton, who owned the building that burned down, helped locate the trailers.
The burnt-out husk of the old building was razed.
“When you saw that hole in the ground, it looked like something you would see in Kosovo,” said Weierbach.
The new building went up and businesses moved back in or into open nearby storefronts. They believed in Mount Airy and wanted to remain downtown.
It’s been long enough now that many of the employees of the businesses weren’t even around when the fire happened and hopefully they won’t ever have to experience that.