Elkton seeking identity to help its struggling business district Themes considered include Colonial history and quick marriages

October 22, 1995|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,SUN STAFF

Elkton, the Cecil County seat that anchors the northeastern corner of Maryland, is having an identity crisis.

Everyone in town agrees that something needs to be done to revive downtown. But what?

Should Elkton exploit its pre-World War II image as the marriage capital of America? Build boutiques to attract upscale shoppers? Promote its rich Colonial architecture and history? Or capitalize on being the center of legal, governmental and banking activity in the county?

"We need a theme," said town Commissioner Robert Alt, who is spearheading the renewal effort in the town of nearly 10,000 people that overlooks the Elk River at the top of the Chesapeake Bay.

Like scores of other small towns in Maryland, Elkton is struggling to keep its aging business district prosperous. A theme would give the town a sense of unity, Mr. Alt said, and give people a reason to come downtown.

Stroll down Elkton's Main Street and you'll see a hodgepodge of businesses -- a five-and-dime store, a tattoo studio, a jeweler, a bakery, a hair salon, a travel agency, a couple of pharmacies and dozens of law offices drawn there by the Cecil County Circuit Court, the District Court and a state office building.

Across from the county courthouse is Elkton's long-standing claim to fame, the Little Wedding Chapel, a stone townhouse with pink trim built in the 1800s and converted into a wedding parlor in the 1920s.

Could it be the centerpiece of Elkton's elusive theme?

Mr. Alt thinks so. In his informal survey of townspeople, he found that Elkton's history as the place to wed without a wait kept coming up.

The marriage business was a major industry in Elkton in the 1930s. Couples could come to Maryland, buy a marriage license without taking a blood test, get married and then get out of town in a few hours. Neighboring states required a wait of at least two days.

And Elkton, just inside the Maryland-Delaware border and less than 10 miles from Pennsylvania, was the logical destination of out-of-state couples who wanted to get hitched in a hurry -- as many as 17,000 a year at its peak in 1938.

If Elkton adopted a marriage theme, town fathers would want couples to marry and stay for a while.

It could happen, Mr. Alt suggested, by adding a couple of bridal shops, another jewelry store and a bed and breakfast in one of the many old Victorian homes on the edge of downtown.

Suzan Doordan, executive director of the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, said the marriage theme could be promoted tastefully.

In all, about 5,000 couples a year still choose to marry in Elkton, in the county courthouse's chapel for $30 or in the Little Wedding Chapel, said Erma Keetley, supervisor of the Cecil County Marriage Bureau.

"Possibly in February, we could decorate the town and offer carriage rides for wedding parties. We get 35 to 50 phone calls a week on how to get married in this town," Ms. Doordan said.

Not everyone loves the idea.

Barbara Foster is one. She owns the Little Wedding Chapel, where 15 to 20 couples a week get married for as little as $95 each.

"I think anything is good that brings business into town, but I don't like the idea of this turning into another Las Vegas," where couples are married in production-line fashion, she said.

Other residents prefer to look back a little further in Elkton's past for a workable theme, 200 years or so back.

The area was settled as early as 1772, when most of what today is Elkton was owned by Robert Alexander, a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. His restored homestead still stands on the edge of town.

Main Street is dotted with historic buildings, including a Revolutionary War hospital, the 225-year-old Partridge Hill home of Colonial legislator Henry Hollingsworth and the 150-year-old Howard House hotel, now a restaurant.

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