A half-hour after his futile attempt to find a parking place one recent Saturday night in historic Ellicott City, County Executive James N. Robey decided to live dangerously: He parked illegally.
"I didn't want to lose my dinner reservation," he said to laughter during a county legislative delegation meeting in Annapolis.
But finding a parking space - a legal one, that is - in the two-lane town along the banks of the Patapsco River is no laughing matter. Six lots and street parking provide 587 spaces, but often that is not enough for those who visit the eclectic shops and restaurants. Sometimes, they give up and go home.
"Ellicott City was built 230 years ago, before there were cars, and now we've got to try to retrofit it," said Jared Spahn, past president of the Ellicott City Business Association. "The economic development or redevelopment of Ellicott City has been prosperous, and in order for them to compete with big-box stores and shopping malls, they need to provide the convenience of parking."
Robey relayed his story of parking frustration to the delegation as the officials discussed Republican Del. Gail H. Bates' bill asking for $500,000 in matching funds to plan for a parking facility for Ellicott City. Robey, a Democrat, told the delegation that a half-million dollars of the state's scarce resources does not need to be spent when the county is developing a mechanism to pay for public facilities such as parking garages.
The county is working toward creating a revenue authority - which would finance cultural, recreational and parking facilities - and one of its first projects could be to build a parking garage close to Main Street.
The authority would allow the county to build public facilities that could be supported by user fees, such as parking fees, without incurring more general county debt paid for with tax revenue. Robey has said it could take a year for the County Council to pass legislation to create an authority.
The local delegation has approved legislation that would enable the county to create a revenue authority and because the bill affects only Howard County, the full General Assembly likely will approve it.
Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said two possible locations for a garage are on the parking lot behind the Main Street post office or on the lot behind the Thomas Isaac log cabin, off Main Street. The project could take four to five years, he said.
Michel Tersiguel, chef and owner of Tersiguel's, the French restaurant on Main Street, said he believes that all the businesses along the street agree that parking is a significant problem. But he does not think the solution is to build a garage on the post office lot.
He fears that while the lot - the largest in the area with 240 spaces - is under construction behind his restaurant, people will be discouraged from patronizing Main Street businesses.
"It's right in the middle of Ellicott City," Tersiguel said. "This is the place everyone comes to park."
The solution might be to encourage business employees to use the parking lots of the county's courthouse - where there are about 350 spaces that are not included in the town's 597 total - up the hill from Main Street to free up more parking for customers, Tersiguel said.
"At this point, you come in on a Friday, Saturday night, and the parking in town itself is packed," he said. "But the courthouse lot is completely empty."
Jordan Naftal, who with his wife, Ivette, own Jordan's Steakhouse on Main Street, said he thinks that just one parking garage is not sufficient. The city needs at least two or three, he said.
While he agrees that building a garage on the post office lot would create a bigger parking problem during construction than exists now, he believes it would be worth it.
"It's something we're willing to do, even though we would have a challenge all year long," Naftal said. "All of the publicity around the fact that they are building a garage could come back to us in a big way."
Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism Inc., noted a recent tourism boom in the county - a 50 percent increase in the number of people coming to the Main Street visitors center from 2003 to 2004 - which she attributed partly to positive publicity.
The New York Times featured Ellicott City in 2003 as a tourist destination. The same year, Sports Illustrated named Howard County as the top "sportstown" in Maryland.
But one of the common complaints the center hears from tourists is about the lack of parking. Sometimes tourists come to the center, out of breath, after running from a far-away parking space to make an appointment for the town's popular ghost tours, Bonacci said.
For Ellicott City to compete with similar historic towns, such as Annapolis or Alexandria, it needs to offer easy parking, Bonacci said.