Improvements set for historic district

Landowners, businesses working together to promote Ellicott City

March 26, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

After watching tourism steadily decline at the end of the past decade, business leaders and property owners in historic Ellicott City are trying to stir interest in their area with a series of improvements - including a new parking garage - that they hope will bring "curb appeal" to the community and more visitors to their shops.

The Ellicott City Business Association (ECBA) expects to spend more than $52,000 raised through private donations this year on street sweeping, potted flowering trees, utility pole banners, quarterly events and a trackless trolley to take visitors from parking lots to the shops.

Much of the money will come from property owners, who, with a new alliance among themselves, have agreed to join the business leaders in their efforts. "For the first time, rather than just the businesses wanting to get the town looking good, the building owners are really helping push a lot of things," said Jared Spahn, who heads the business association. "We've got a bunch of building owners who want to show their pride in the community and make it sparkle."

Plans to spruce up the town come as Ellicott City has seen its first tourism increase last year after three years of decline, and as the area faces growing competition from The Mall in Columbia, which is expanding, Arundel Mills mall, and a revitalized Savage Mill a few miles away.

Business leaders are trying not only to draw county residents to the historic district but also to make the city a tourist destination.

"One of the things we don't want is to be thought of as a little mill town," said Melissa Arnold, director of marketing for the county Tourism Council, which has offices just off Main Street. "We need the partnership with the ECBA to take this to the next level, where [Ellicott City] is not just a local or regional attraction. Knowing the ECBA is on the right track really gives us a lot of opportunities."

Monthly street sweeping has begun, and the association has ordered six potted trees that will decorate the sidewalks and flower in the spring, Spahn said. Plans are under way for a Father's Day weekend block party, and the association was finalizing designs for the utility pole banners last week.

Donald R. Reuwer, head of the ECBA's property owners committee, and Dr. Bruce Taylor, a prominent property owner in town, are together donating $25,000 to the association to buy a trackless trolley that organizers said will be another attraction.

"I would think business owners would be doing the yipee-skipee dance in the street to know that's coming," Arnold said. "I think it will add so much to the historic district."

The trolley, which could take up to nine months to arrive, will advertise businesses and transport visitors from remote parking areas to the historic district while the city is waiting for its parking garage. County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican whose district includes Ellicott City, said plans for the projected $1.5 million to $2 million garage could be part of the county budget process this year. Merdon said he has asked the county executive to include start-up funds for the project in his budget for next year.

"What I asked for was seed money to show citizens and business leaders we're serious about moving forward," Merdon said. "Putting some seed money [in the budget] may spark some interest to do a public-private partnership. I've heard from some people that they would be willing to partner with the county to make sure the garage is built."

That level of involvement, particularly from landowners in the historic district, is a new twist, said Reuwer, who also owns Land Design & Development, with offices on Main Street. Landowners have been willing to contribute to the plans, hoping that improvements eventually will result in higher property values and higher rents.

"A lot of the town is owned by 10 people, and there's unity between those 10 people that's never been there before," he said. "They've been waiting for the [ECBA] to say, `here's what happens, here are the programs.'"

In the past, property owners, businesspeople and historic preservationists have had different agendas - sometimes conflicting ones - for the area. But now "the property owners have just been energized with the possibilities. They just really see Ellicott City coming into its own as the county grows and develops," Reuwer said.

The owners' support makes a difference in the business leaders' efforts at revival.

"They're going to be putting a lot of money into the city," said Spahn, the ECBA president. "ECBA is looking forward to having some of the strongest years ever."

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