Mill town debates its future New liquor licenses concern some in city

July 29, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Historic Ellicott City is in the midst of an identity crisis.

Will the former mill town remain the quaint boutique district it has been since the late 1970s -- or will it become a party haven, like Fells Point or downtown Annapolis?

The latter possibility has some restaurant owners worried, especially in light of the liquor licenses granted Thursday to a prospective restaurant and brew pub in the historic district.

"People are treating Ellicott City like a field of dreams," said George "Buzz" Suter, owner of Judge's Bench restaurant on Main Street. "Buy a building, plunk a few hundred thousand dollars in it and apply for a liquor license. Where is it going to stop?"

He added: "It's time to take a look at what's happening in the town and figure out what Ellicott City is going to be."

Although merchants, developers, preservationists and county officials say they would like to see the area grow, many question whether the town has a vision of how that should take place.

"It's real hard getting a consensus on which way to go in Ellicott City. It's always been divisive," said Howard County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican. "But there are opportunities waiting to happen. I see it becoming one of the most desirable destinations in Howard County, if not Central Maryland."

There isn't much space in the district to build, but the constant turnover of businesses has allowed room for redevelopment of many of the stone buildings. A few vacant ones are available for sale or lease.

The district zoning is "fairly liberal," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county Planning and Zoning Department. Most commercial uses are acceptable, she said.

That means more restaurants, among other possibilities.

But whether the district can accommodate more visitors has become an issue in an area where parking woes have led to new meters and tougher on-street parking restrictions that went into effect last week.

The coalition of six restaurants that joined to fight the development of Milltown Tavern and Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. based its opposition on the district's parking squeeze.

But the county Liquor Board's approval of licenses for those businesses makes it inevitable that they will join the district's eclectic mix of shops. Both are due to open this year.

And discussion of the town's future doesn't end there.

"It's a healthy sign that there's a discourse going on about [building] uses. I've seen communities where nothing is going on -- and the silence is deafening," said Gary Maule, president of Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, an umbrella group for merchants and preservationists.

But those who hope to develop projects in the district said the contentious atmosphere is less than inviting.

For example, an apartment building for senior citizens is to open late next year. But a prospective restaurant owner filed a civil suit in June asking the Howard County Circuit Court to repeal permission for that project.

Many merchants and residents support the suit, saying the district doesn't need more housing.

Other business owners say the district's future will take care of itself. "Ellicott City is an old historic town that's suffering from some growing pains, but it's growing in the right direction," said Frank DiPietro, who has owned a toy store on Main Street for five years.

He added: "New businesses want to come here. The parking is being dealt with. Ellicott City has a wonderful forward vision."

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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