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Down on Main Street, Jonathan Herman and the Revival of Sykesville

The house behind them used to belong to Norwood, the station master. It was originally one of Frank Brown's small summer cottages. Norwood wanted more. He wanted a windmill on the roof. Jonathan bought it and moved here to renovate it and live it.
Jonathan Herman, with the beard, and his crew, just behind Main Street in olden times.

This is the story that led my family to Sykesville. I think it was a Sunday when I read it. It was in the Baltimore City Paper, which no longer exists.

I don't know why I had a City Paper in my little house in Baltimore County that day, but I did, and I read this article by Bob Allen about Jonathan Herman and got my wife to read it. We were thinking about moving, and the article appealed to our sense of where we would like to be. An old town with a Main Street, struggling to rebuild itself.

I feel like we came out to Sykesville that very same day, but I'm not sure. I do know that we came pretty quickly and that on our first visit we committed to buying a house.

I didn't known Jonathan or Bob and didn't really expect to meet them. But then one day Jon showed up at my door. He was running for mayor. He was going to lose by about 20 votes, and we became friends. He introduced me to Bob, and now, thanks to that article in the City Paper, the three of us are well acquainted.

So here's Bob's article. I still enjoy it, just as I enjoy the one he wrote about Sykesville in 1986, when Lloyd Helt was mayor.

Down on Main Street by Bob Allen

"It's probably the most powerful image of my entire life."

Jonathan Herman, late of Queens and Baltimore, mayor of the 3,500 residents of Sykesville, Md., is recalling the coruscating moment when he really came to understand the big picture of small-town life, when he stopped asking himself, "Why do I live where I live?"

"It was around Christmas several years ago, and I was working on this house I'd bought and was renovating on Upland Road in Roland Park," says Herman, 45, by day a portrait artist and owner of a small historic-renovation company. It had been a renovation project that brought him to Sykesville in 1985, but the life-long urbanite hadn,t planned to settle in the little Carroll County town.

"The [Roland Park] building was terribly deteriorated--probably the most dangerous place I'd ever set foot in. Parts of the second floor of the house had caved in and fallen through to the basement. It was dirty, disgusting work. Basically, every day was spent digging debris and garbage--the grossest stuff imaginable, in this cold, damp building with no windows. I'd be so cold at the end of the day it would take me the entire ride home to Sykesville just to start to get warm.

"As I drove home, I'd go through some Baltimore neighborhoods that were sad. I'd see these little 3- and 4-year-old kids out wandering the streets in T-shirts in the middle of the winter without parents or siblings. I mean, I’m dirty, with soot all over me, and I’m seeing this"--he shakes his head gloomily--"and the whole world, in my mind, is like this sad, sorry place.

"Then I drove across the [Patapsco River] bridge, past the old train station, into Sykesville, and it was like another world." He pauses, grins. "The town was having its Christmas open house. I see all these people walking around, all these Christmas lights and carolers and Santa Claus. . .

"I was transformed into this Norman Rockwell painting! I thought, My God, I've died and gone to heaven."

The Struggles of Norman Rockwell

For all the faith Americans seem to invest in the manufactured nostalgia of Norman Rockwell’s Main Street images, the decades since World War II have not always been kind to our small towns. Some, in Maryland and elsewhere, have survived and flourished, but many more have been swallowed up by the prevailing forces of suburban sprawl.

Some have gained the world and lost their souls by over adapting to these forces. At the other extreme are towns that stood by and watched as their vitality was sapped by Walmarts and megamalls.

Sykesville, nestled about 20 miles west of Baltimore in a wooded ravine on the Carroll County side of the Patapsco, almost suffered the latter fate. The sleepy little river town bottomed out economically in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Municipal officials seriously considered legislating Sykesville out of existence.

But as the ’90s wind down, Sykesville—while not yet free of growing pains—is in the midst of an impressive revival, a transition emblematic in many ways of the changes taking place in similar-sized towns across Maryland and the nation.

Sykesville’s Main Street commercial occupancy rate, down to a dismal 60 or 70 percent in the ’70s, is back to 100 percent. More than a dozen antique and specialty shops and three restaurants now occupy the century-old downtown buildings, which were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The circa-1884 Baltimore & Ohio train station, which stood neglected and in near-ruin for years, has undergone a lavish $100,000 renovation. Once used by CFX to store barrels of creosote, it’s now home to Baldwin’s Station and Pub, an upscale restaurant and concert venue that stands next to the river, in the shadow of an old feed mill.

"It's been a real surprise to me recently how many people have turned out at town meetings on the town's historic-preservation projects and told us they moved to Sykesville because of the historic district," Herman says with satisfaction. The mayor—who took office in 1994—resides a couple of blocks from Main Street, in a big 113-year-old Victorian he and his wife Becky bought and restored. It's one of three old houses in town they've purchased and renovated since moving to Sykesville in 1985.

"At least here," he says, "we have the kind of planning and control of our destiny that's really in the hands of residents, as opposed to a place like Eldersburg"--the unincorporated and heavily developed community a few miles away—"where for years developers have been able to more or less just show up and build something in a way that doesn't follow any master plan at all."

Sykesville's turnaround has not been without internecine struggles. Clashes between local preservationists and laissez-faire-minded property owners have often been heated. What they seem to be clashing over is whose future vision of Sykesville will prevail.

As the town's $400-a-month chief executive, Herman routinely finds himself in the line of fire. It takes its toll in stress and lost sleep as he struggles to balance the duties of office with the competing demands of raising four daughters (ages 1 through 17) and running his business. Somehow, he still finds time to proselytize on county and statewide issues, such as the current drive to bring charter-style government to Carroll County, and Gov. Parris Glendening's anti-sprawl Smart Growth Initiative. It's no surprise that, as he rushes from job sites to Town Council meetings to his kids' gymnastics and violin lessons, he often looks bedraggled.

"A lot of times I have to stop and ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?'" he says, popping a Jimi Hendrix tape into the cassette deck of his well-worn Toyota Takoma, as he drives slowly down Main Street on a cloudy afternoon.

"Why am I spending umpteen hours a week away from my family, away from my business, to become involved in all this? . . . It's, like, the last thing I would have thought about doing. I've had absolutely no drive since childhood to be in politics. I've always been petrified of public speaking, and I never particularly liked government or authority. And a lot of times this really is like beating my head against a wall.

"But the reason I'm doing it is because there's progress being made," he continues. "Every once in a while, my brother, who lives in upper Manhattan, comes down to visit. He looks around and says, 'My God, this place is so dead!' But I always tell him, 'It may look dead to you, but I walk around, and I see people making all kinds of improvements and doing all kinds of things . . . and even though there are bumps in the road and it's sometimes painful, I know we're heading in the right direction here."

At 9 a.m. on an overcast Saturday morning he could be spending with his wife and kids or doing fancy scroll work in his carpentry shop, Herman is off to smooth over yet another municipal mini-crisis. Residents in one of Sykesville's newer subdivisions are unhappy with the gazebo the developer has built in their little park. They think it's ugly.

"When I think of a gazebo," one irate homeowner says, "I don't think of this."

The sleepy-eyed mayor, dressed in his workaday outfit of black stocking cap, dusty jeans, a worn L.L. Bean windbreaker, and tattered athletic shoes, meets up with Wiley Purkey, a member of Sykesville's Historic District Commission, in the parking lot next to Town Hall.

Purkey, an Ellicott City native, moved to town not long after Herman. Back then, he recalls, Sykesville was "empty, with no hope . . . not a positive place." Today he lives on Main Street, where he is co-owner of an art and framing store. A painter, like Herman, Purkey is one of the mayor's right-hand men, and one of the town's fiercest historic-preservation watchdogs.

"So, what's it gonna be today, Jonathan? Hendrix, Dylan, or Harrison?" Purkey teases Herman as he slides into the Takoma. Dylan's Time Out Of Mind will be the soundtrack for their gazebo fact-finding mission.

Out at the park, Herman, Purkey, homeowners, and the town's code inspector view the gazebo from every conceivable angle and mentally deconstruct it, flaw by flaw. They agree that a few relatively cheap modifications--a roof overhang, some crescent-shaped windows, maybe a weathervane--would provide the Victorian look the homeowners pine for.

Later, Purkey and Herman adjourn to the Alley Cats Café, a new Main Street eatery. Purkey does a rough sketch of the modified gazebo, as he envisions it. For Herman, who has fought tooth and nail to realize town leaders' plan for Sykesville's historic revitalization, even a relatively small matter like this reinforces his notion of what a small town should strive for in the late 20th century.

"It's interesting," the mayor observes. "Even in the newer sections of the town people still want that Victorian comfort. They want those aspects of an old town."

If the gazebo represents a tiny brush stroke in Herman's vision for Sykesville, then the town's recent annexation of the 131-acre, 15-building Warfield complex from Springfield State Hospital takes in the larger canvas.

The Warfield complex's turn-of-the-century buildings and campus like grounds, deeded by the state to Sykesville last December, are slated to become a natural extension of the east end of the town's Main Street, where it intersects with Route 32. After the complex undergoes an estimated 20-year, $14 million face-lift, Herman and the Town Council plan to retrofit it as an industrial/commercial center.

The long-range plans are ambitious, as long-range plans tend to be. Perhaps Warfield could be home to high-tech companies, or a university satellite campus. To Herman, the recycled complex is the cornerstone of the town's future tax base, and a buffer against the burgeoning mall sprawl of nearby Eldersburg.

"If the development that [took place] here had been beyond our control and not congruent with our town, it could have been devastating," he says.

Securing Warfield has taken Herman to Annapolis numerous times to canvass the governor, his staff, and Carroll County legislators for support. Last summer he cornered Glendening at a mayors' conference in Ocean City in hopes of hurrying the property transfer. The governor ultimately proved a powerful ally.

"I'm particularly impressed with [Herman's] aggressiveness and leadership," Glendening says. "When Mayor Herman and I talked about the Warfield complex project after the mayors' meeting last summer, we agreed that it was the type of initiative that demonstrates exactly what Smart Growth is about."

"These are really some awesome buildings, aren't they? They don't make 'em like this anymore," Herman murmurs one sunny afternoon as he strides across the Warfield site's rolling lawn and points to the large brick buildings with their marble steps, fancy cupolas, and ornate cornice work. "Of course, before they backed out, the Carroll County government was in competition with us to acquire this as a future industrial site. They wanted to tear all these buildings down."

The subject of the county powers-that-be in Westminster tends to wipe the smile off Herman's face and bring a hint of contempt to his voice.

"Let's just say you inherited a $180 million business--which is about what the county's annual budget is. Would you turn around and hire three semi-retired old men who constantly fight among themselves, and pay them each $32,000 a year to run it?" Herman says of Carroll Commissioners Benjamin Brown, Donald Dell, and Richard T. Yates. "I think not."

Herman is passionate enough on the matter to have spent a couple of recent Saturdays standing in the rain in front of shopping malls collecting signatures for a petition drive to bring charter government, with a county executive at the helm, to Carroll. With enough signatures the measure would go to countywide referendum May 2. (Similar proposals have been voted down twice before.)

"If we had one strong executive who gave us good, clear leadership, we'd save ourselves tenfold by seizing opportunities that are currently being missed," he insists. (The county commissioners did not return calls seeking comment on Herman and the charter-government campaign.)

Herman's contempt for the current county leadership turned to outrage in May 1997, when Yates and Dell overruled Brown in a 2-to-1 vote and refused to take part in a regional anti-racism conference. Carroll County has no racial problems, Yates insisted. He went on to say that, rather than working to help Baltimore, he'd prefer to watch the city die. "Maybe [then] we'll dig it up and make farmland out of it," he joked in a Sun interview.

Herman and all seven other Carroll County mayors quickly volunteered to participate in the conference. "I think Baltimore's a wonderful city," says Herman, who lived in the city for most of the 1970s, graduating from the Maryland Institute, College of Art and working as a laborer on then-mayor William Donald Schaefer's urban-renewal programs.

"I've seen the Schaefer administration, the [Mayor Kurt] Schmoke administration; I've seen Baltimore rise up, then slide back down again. My heart goes out to it. For a healthy community like us to look the other way is very self-centered."

Ask Herman how an aspiring painter/sculptor and former urbanite landed up to his elbows in small-town politics and he's apt to laugh and reply, "I got stuck here!" But when asked about his fierce attachment to the small-town ethos, he recalls his childhood in a Queens, N.Y., planned community called Fresh Meadows.

"It was very avant-garde in the '50s," he recalls with a trace of dreamy nostalgia. "All duplexes, lots of open spaces. A beautiful community. . . It was like a paradise to me when I was a kid—big playgrounds. I'd walk home from school every day for lunch. I could go where I wanted without the fear of crime and violence there is today."

The son of a Manhattan jewelry salesman, Herman attended the Art Students League in Manhattan and spent summers working on his uncle's farm upstate. After high school, he moved on to Baltimore and the Maryland Institute. He graduated in 1975 and for a while eked out a living from his art.

"I was living in this Korean boarding house on Eutaw Place, and one day I was standing in my room doing a cityscape painting of Reservoir Hill, and I could see all these buildings in the distance being renovated and getting prettier and prettier," he recalls.

"I thought it was fantastic, all these people fixing up this decaying city. I wanted to be part of it, so I went up there and got a $3-an-hour job carrying sheets of plywood and two-by-fours up these two- and three-story buildings."

Herman soon started his own one-man home-improvement company. (Even today, after winning historic-preservation awards for his renovation work, he prefers to keep his crew small and does much of the detail work himself.) His first major rehab project was a burnt-out shell on Maryland Avenue, which he bought in the mid-1970s and still owns.

"I was living in this house with no heat and one electrical outlet. In the summertime I'd be lying in bed on this mattress on the floor and these bats would come in and swoop around my head," he laughs. "I'd just pull the covers over my head and try to forget about it."

Herman had his first lesson in the power of local politics when he applied for a $14,000 low-interest loan from the city to rehab the property. "The requirements for the loan were so ridiculous I don't think they were expecting anybody to actually show up and apply," he says.

After a lengthy runaround, the official to whom he'd tendered the loan application suggested they'd both be better off if Herman bowed out gracefully; he advised Herman to write a letter saying he no longer wanted to borrow the money. The loan officer turned out to be one of many bureaucrats who underestimated Herman's tenacity.

"I was living next to the Franciscan Center and I told the sisters there about it, and they said for me to go see [then-City Council member] Mary Pat Clarke. Mary Pat told me, 'Jonathan, you go ahead and write this guy a letter. But instead of telling him you don't want the loan, tell him you want a meeting with him, his supervisor, and Mary Pat Clarke.'

I wrote the letter and took it in to the guy. He's sitting there thinking it's my letter of resignation from the loan program. He starts to read it, and all the sudden the veins in his forehead pop out and he takes it and starts to crumple it up. Then he smoothes it back out again, and says, 'All right, you can have your meeting.' He ended up offering me $30,000 at 3 percent. Naively, I only took $14,000, which was all I wanted in the first place."

It was a newspaper ad for an 1860s Victorian house, built by 19th-century Maryland governor Frank Brown, that drew Herman and his wife Becky to Sykesville. The house was in such deplorable shape that, once again, nobody wanted to spring for a loan. It was only Herman's and a Union National Bank's loan officer's mutual fondness for raising tropical fish that broke the ice and got him the loan after about 30 other banks turned him down.

Herman confesses he was not looking to put down roots in Sykesville. He figured he'd refurbish the half-ruined house, sell it, and move on.

When he arrived in 1985, Sykesville, after nearly two decades of decline, was beginning to show the first, inchoate stirrings of its present revival. But the inevitable cycles of boom and bust were nothing new for the town, which sprang up around a mill built by an Englishman named John Sykes in the 1820s. Since its founding, Sykesville has been repeatedly battered and revived by waves of prosperity and adversity.

Sykesville originally rose on what's now the Howard County side of the Patapsco and received a big boost with the coming of the B&O Railroad's main line from Baltimore in 1831. Even the Civil War—during which a Confederate cavalry detachment purportedly burned the town bridge and tore up the railroad tracks on their way to Gettysburg—didn't impede Sykesville's 19th-century progress. Nor did an 1868 flood that all but washed away the town—it was quickly rebuilt on the Carroll County side of the river and prospered anew.

Springfield Hospital opened in 1896 (eight years before Sykesville incorporated); in the following decades it burgeoned into the largest public mental hospital on the east coast, and Sykesville flourished as a company town.

By the 1960s, though, the boom years were fading memories. The B&O trains stopped less frequently, then not at all. In 1968, the state rerouted Route 32 from Main Street to an out-of-town bypass. Cutbacks at Springfield reduced the patient and staff population to less than a quarter of its peak total, damaging Sykesville's retail trade. The hit to local merchants was exacerbated by the coming of nearby malls, such as Carrolltowne in Eldersburg.

The town's travails reached almost cartoonish proportions, sapping what little civic morale remained. In 1969 the firehouse caught fire, destroying the town's two engines. Around the same time Sykesville's police chief was arrested in Frederick for drunken driving.

In 1972 Hurricane Agnes washed out the Main Street bridge. It was not replaced for three years, due in large part to local apathy. Rats infested the downtown food market, and as the Main Street vacancy rate soared, the town began taking on the peeling-paint, weeds-in-the-sidewalk vestiges of decay.

The Town Council prepared to dissolve the town—just hand the charter over to the county and walk away. Only the vehement opposition of Sykesville's residents halted the process. In a referendum, they voted to hold on to their small town.

Ironically, some of the forces that nearly destroyed Sykesville in the '60s and '70s laid the groundwork for its subsequent revival. The Route 32 bypass, devastating when it happened, probably short-circuited the rampant commercial development that typically follows a highway through a small town. And it's probably the biggest reason why Sykesville, with its rustic feed mill, restored train station, 19th-century architecture, staid Methodist church, and stately houses overlooking the river, still possesses the drowsy, slow-lane charm of a place frozen in time.

Similarly, the rapid suburbanization of southern Carroll and northwestern Howard counties also helped boost the town. According to Bruce Greenberg, who owns several Main Street buildings and whose wife is proprietor of Greenberg's Great Train, Dollhouse & Toy Show, it's these affluent suburban newcomers, "with much more discretionary income and looking for a recreational shopping experience that's an alternative to the malls," who have rejuvenated Sykesville, much as Columbia's emergence paved the way for Ellicott City's rebirth.

Jonathan Herman's entry into Sykesville's small-pond political scene was—and apparently still is—devoid of any grand strategy.

"I was talking to a town councilman one day not long after I moved here about some concerns I had and he asked me why I didn't get on the town's Planning and Zoning Commission. I did, and I discovered that the planning aspect of a town—where to put roads and houses and trees—had a lot more to do with design and the things I'd studied as an art student than with politics.

Then when I got on the board and we'd make all these recommendations, the council would just shoot them down, which upset me. I finally thought, Well, if that's where the power is, that's where I wanna go. I was one of several people who ran for the council [in the mid-1980s] who really wanted to upset this good-old-boy thing they had going back then."

Before he was elected to council, Herman served on a volunteer committee that oversaw the ambitious restoration of the train station, which was completed in 1989, two years before the town established its historic district. (His wife Becky is also a former chairperson of the Historic District Commission.)

That effort "really was the turning point for the town," Herman says. "The station brought a lot of people together from a variety of walks of life, and they volunteered their time, energy, and money toward a single project.

The notion of town spirit sounds intangible, but that really stirred up all the spirit that Sykesville has today—that intangible thing that inspires all these baby-boom-generation professional people to volunteer their precious time and become involved in the steering of this town."

Not too involved, however. When then-mayor Kenneth Clark resigned in the fall of 1994 to take a job out of state, nobody wanted the office—including Herman.

"It's a lot of additional and sometimes thankless work," he told The Sun at the time.

"Being mayor would cut into time I just don't have."

When no one else stepped into the breach, however, Herman agreed to serve as interim mayor. He handily won election to serve out the remainder of Clark's term, and last year was reelected without opposition to a full four-year term. In both elections the turnout was minimal—only about 200 voters. "That's not unusual for a town this size," the mayor notes with a casual shrug.

Compared with some of Sykesville's former mayors, Herman is bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Leroy "Happy" Keeney, a popular mayor of the 1950s, kept injured pigeons in his Main Street barbershop and gave kids who came in for a haircut water pistols to shoot at them. In the '70s, the town had an English mayor—Capt. Horace Jefferson, who once piloted a tugboat on Curtis Bay. 1980s Mayor Lloyd Helt Jr. raised hackles by declaring Sykesville a nuclear-free zone.

Herman does have one thing in common with his colorful predecessors—he is, as Wiley Purkey says, "the antithesis of the political person.

"He's a working man who has wrinkled hands and a face that has the character of the things he's done and seen," Purkey says. "He doesn't see the mayor's office as a steppingstone to anything else, and he doesn't just have his own self-centered vision for Sykesville's future. He's at the forefront of a vision that's shared by a lot of us, old-timers and newcomers alike."

"Jonathan is a diplomat," observes one of the town's matrons, life-long resident and Historic District Commission member Dorothy Schaefer. "I've seen him in situations that nobody would want to face, but he can always handle them. Yet, it takes so much out of him that I worry about him sometimes. I'll even call Becky now and then just to see how he's doing."

It's hard to find out-and-out Herman detractors in town, but there are a few skeptics, particularly Main Street building owners who perceive the Historic District Commission's powers to approve or deny changes to buildings as an intrusion on their property rights and a drain on their wallets.

Case in point: vinyl siding—perhaps the two most loaded words in Sykesville politics right now. Some Main Street property owners, including Bruce Greenberg, want to apply siding that replicates their buildings' original facades. Doing so, they say, would be far less costly and require less frequent upkeep than the antique wood facades, which need frequent scraping and repainting. But the Historic District Commission—like such commissions most everywhere—is adamant that vinyl siding is incompatible with legitimate historic renovation.

Greenberg managed Herman's first campaign for local office but has since fallen out with the mayor over such issues. He cites the Warfield annexation as an example of a flaw in Herman's leadership style.

"Jonathan has a very charismatic quality, in his soft-spoken way. He exercises a kind of very persuasive moral leadership, even though he denies it," says Greenberg, who, despite his extensive Main Street holdings, lives outside the town limits in Howard County. "And because of the nature of small-town politics, because there is no strong opposition leader like you have on the national level, he defines and sets the terms of the public discourse. . .

"Because of Jonathan's background, his most important priority was the preservation of those old buildings—that's a personal priority that he's made into public policy. Those [Warfield complex] buildings are really just expensive shells with asbestos and all sorts of other problems. What is the tax burden going to be for the people of Sykesville in the next 10 years for the maintenance and sale of those properties? As far as I know, that's not been answered."

Disgruntled property owners such as Greenberg have formed an opposition group called Citizens for a Better Sykesville. In their view, the town would be better served by a kinder, gentler Historic District Commission that promoted voluntary compliance rather than issuing legal mandates. (Voluntary compliance, Herman maintains, "has never worked anywhere else and would never work here.") Frustration flared into open anger at a February town meeting on the Main Street revitalization plan.

The meeting, held in a cafeteria at Springfield Hospital, drew more than 100 residents on a rainy night. Two consultants from Kann & Associates, a Baltimore company specializing in architectural preservation, presented the results of their $16,000 study on how to most effectively make Main Street more shopper-friendly while maintaining and enhancing its antique charm.

As soon as the floor was thrown open for discussion, Greenberg sprang to his feet and began reading a statement of protest on behalf of Citizens for a Better Sykesville.

Herman, seated at the head table with the Town Council, interrupted Greenberg and asked in a soft voice, "Are we getting into the vinyl-siding issue again?"

At Herman's suggestion, the five council members made and passed a motion to cut Greenberg off.

"Nobody's even mentioned vinyl siding," Greenberg protested with quiet vehemence.

"The issue is deteriorating buildings, pure and simple. Sykesville is an ugly town! How do you expect visitors to come here?"

"We've passed a motion," Herman interjected.

"Just unincorporate the town! That's the best thing to do!" a man standing in the back of the room jeered.

A woman turned and glared at him. "These people are the town," she shouted, pointing to the people seated around her. "You're not representing us!"

"That's right!" another woman hollered. "You presume that we agree with you. We don't!"

Herman seemed to know all this was coming. He stifled a yawn and gently cleared his throat. "The [Main Street plan] has gone through the legal process and represents the view of the majority," he said in a quiet, slightly weary voice. "If it turns out you don't want a historic district, then you can vote the present mayor and council out at the next election. Currently, though, we've been elected to represent the majority, and we're going to do this."

After the meeting, as people milled around the cafeteria talking heatedly among themselves, Herman walked over to a window. For a moment, he turned his back on the crowd and stared out at the February rain blowing in sheets under the streetlights. All at once, he looked very tired.

Now, he nonchalantly shrugs off the brouhaha and points to a recent town survey that gave Sykesville's government a more than 70 percent approval rating. "Those people are the same ones who used to block everything back when I was on the planning commission in the '80s," he says of his interlocutors. "They're very wealthy people, and they're just being cheapskates about this. A lot of property owners who are a lot less well-off are very supportive and enthusiastic about the [Main Street plan], and they're putting their hard earnings into historic preservation."

In the meantime, with sweeping plans for the Warfield complex moving forward and the fine-line details of the Main Street plan falling into place, Herman has bigger—and smaller—fish to fry. So, he slogs on, inspecting gazebos, fielding irate phone calls, and fending off complaints from critics when he's late filing his annual financial-disclosure statement or when he puts a sign advertising his business at the end of his driveway. Meanwhile, he spends hours in planning sessions or on expeditions to recruit businesses to Warfield.

Along the way, he owns up to occasional bouts of midlife angst. He and fellow artist Wiley Purkey agonize over the fact there's so much potential studio space in their little Norman Rockwell town, but they seldom find time to paint.

“I had a talk with my uncle about this a while back,” Herman says. “He's a painter, and a retired town planner. I was telling him how I really would like to find the time to paint and sculpt and do all this stuff, but I never do. Then it occurred to me that the work we’re doing in this town really is like a bigger picture. An enormous creation. A living sculpture.”

He laughs softly at the grandiosity of his own imagery. “And after you’ve worked on it for so many years,” he adds, earnest again, “you just want to see it get finished.”

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