Merchants oppose Ellicott City tax plan Higher costs seen as hurting businesses

February 25, 1993|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

Merchants in historic Ellicott City are fighting a proposal to create a special tax district for their area that would pay for such expenses as promotions, maintenance and security.

The tax is among recommendations outlined in a 46-page report by the Ellicott City Marketing Task Force. The group was formed in April by County Executive Charles I. Ecker to suggest improvements for the historic district.

The report lays out a five-year plan to improve marketing and tourism, operations, growth and development in the historic district.

No suggestions on the amount of tax or who would pay it were offered, and such a plan would have to be approved by the County Council.

Many shopkeepers and restaurateurs said a special tax district would force them to pass higher costs on to customers and could drive them out of business.

"If they push taxes and levies against me, that's pushing me further down the hole," said Robert Costella, owner of E.C. Does It Cafe, who has invested his savings in his 3-year-old business.

Other merchants said a special tax district would usurp their control by dictating store hours and what type of merchandise could be sold.

Merchants said they would respond to the report during a regular meeting of the Ellicott City Business Association at 7 p.m. today at the county Historical Society.

"They're getting into regulating standard business procedures," said Adele Thayer, who co-owns Michele-Thayer Ltd., which specializes in unusual gifts and wearable art. "I don't know how they can possibly know our business as well as we do."

But task force members stressed that the report is just a "discussion document" and will be finalized only after they have heard from merchants, property owners and residents during three public meetings.

"This whole document is no more than a series of recommendations," said Kirk Fancher, task force member and business liaison for Howard County's Economic Development Office. "This is really the first step, and people are perceiving this as set in stone."

County Executive Ecker agreed.

"The task force is not complete," Mr. Ecker said. "I have no intentions of creating a special taxing proposal. The business community would have to support one."

Mr. Ecker also said he values mom-and-pop operations and wants to keep them in historic Ellicott City.

"The small-business community contributes a lot in its own right," Mr. Ecker said. "It's the backbone of our community. We don't want to have these businesses move out of Ellicott City. We need them."

But Mr. Costella views a special tax district as unwanted government interference. "I don't need someone to tell me how to run and legislate my business. It's government getting into my business."

Merchants said they also feared a special tax district could strip Main Street of its charm and uniqueness, making it similar to a mall.

"This is a formula that's created for malls. It doesn't apply to Ellicott City," said Edwin Williams, co-owner of Mumbles and Squeaks Toy Gallery. "Ellicott City is a natural, spontaneous Main Street. [The special tax district] would create a caricature of a Main Street."

One task force member, Danielle Morgenthaler, the sales and market

ing director for The Mall in Columbia, said it is not the group's aim to tamper with Ellicott City's singular features.

"I think that would be an absolute disaster," Ms. Morgenthaler said. "I think people go there [historic Ellicott City] because it isn't a mall."

While some merchants praised the report's recommendations, including a call for consistent shopping hours, others criticized it for not paying enough attention to parking, a long-standing problem.

"I think a lot of the things in here are wonderful, but we need parking," said Lou Bennett, co-owner of Act I & Act II Designer Boutique.

Ellicott City has 863 parking spaces, or about two spaces to every storefront, according to Barry Gibson, president of the Ellicott City Business Association. By comparison, the Mall in Columbia has about 30 spaces to every storefront.

Many merchants said additional parking should be created before trying to attract more people to the "jewel" of Howard County.

The report suggests moving on several fronts to improve parking in the historic district, including adding spaces behind the Main Street post office and along the railroad tracks south of the B&O Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City, and building a parking lot on the Talbott Lumber Co. property.

The task force also supports a plan to build an 82-space parking lot in Oella for Ellicott City patrons.

Task force members said they hope that critics of the plan will put their fears aside and cooperate to improve Ellicott City.

"Everybody has to keep an open mind and come up with ways to market the hell out of Ellicott City," Mr. Fancher said. "The competition to get dollars is going to be fierce."

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