Group seeks cure for Edgewood's identity crisis

Initiative aims to boost Harford community's image


When Deborah Merlock began an effort almost two years ago to promote the Edgewood schools her children attend, she realized there was a much larger obstacle to overcome than academic underachievement.

Edgewood residents - who live in a community that's larger than any of Harford County's incorporated cities and towns, but that lacks identity - had become frustrated with broken promises of revitalization, as well as a recent spate of gang-related crime that, while largely restricted to two neighborhoods, had tainted the entire ZIP code.

"You tell someone they're no good for long enough, they start to believe it. But it's not true," said Merlock, who is leading two organizations that promote the community's positive attributes. "Every community in Harford has its challenges, but pride in the community is what drives perception."

This week, along with County Executive David R. Craig, members of the Edgewood Roundtable will unveil a logo and slogan submitted by two members of the community with hopes that it will be the springboard for an increased appreciation of the town's culture and diversity.

While many acknowledge that Edgewood has much more to offer than the troubled neighborhoods where gang crime has made headlines, they also say they realize that a complete revitalization is a long way off.

Edgewood Road, the area targeted for the most development, hardly has "Main Street" qualities in its current condition - a hodgepodge of strip malls, auto shops and free-standing restaurants that leads to the MARC train station and the south gate of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

But, for the past few months, the roundtable - a group of community, spiritual, political and business leaders - has been meeting to gather resources and to try producing results. They aim to bring to the forefront the many other facets of Edgewood that are often overlooked, from farms to waterfront homes to the growing business community.

"It's about acknowledging that there's more to the community than one or two small neighborhoods," said Aaron N. Tomarchio, Craig's chief of staff. The county government plans to appoint a liaison to Edgewood who would have an office in the community and could offer a package of incentives as a catalyst for businesses to redevelop.

Seeking to attract tourists or new residents, many cities and towns from across the country have enlisted the help of ad agencies and marketing strategists to create a branded image.

In Harford County, residents have seen similar efforts succeed. Havre de Grace increased tourist activity by capitalizing on its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and increasing the business presence on Main Street. Also, visitors driving into Aberdeen will notice a brick sign promoting its 1997 distinction as an All-American City, in addition to a new emphasis on baseball with the arrival of Cal Ripken's minor league team, the IronBirds.

For Edgewood's rebranding to work, Merlock said, the impetus had to come from the community, which she said had been slow to warm to the idea. A revitalization plan crafted under County Executive James M. Harkins in 2000 had become a "document on a shelf," and residents were wary.

"One of the main things is getting the word out and getting the community involved," said Liz Leoni, who works in business development for Freedom Federal Credit Union and sits on the Edgewood roundtable. "It's not going to be just one particular person - it's going to take everybody."

For all her efforts, Merlock is an Abingdon resident who lives on the other side of U.S. 40 and Interstate 95.

But her two children attend Edgewood schools, exposing her to the positives as well as the negatives. She said her daughter, a seventh-grader at Edgewood Middle, is an A student.

In 2004, she started the Greater Edgewood Education Foundation to cast the schools and students in a better and - as she says - more accurate light.

"Having children in Edgewood schools, I know there are positive things in the community," she said. "The foundation was about building community for the schools and bringing together a diverse group to enhance opportunity."

The roundtable, however, is lacking such diversity. At a recent meeting, the only black participant was a local pastor, the Rev. Charles Wilson.

Tamyka Lawrence, the 35-year-old owner of City Styles Braiding Salon in Edgewood Plaza, a member who did not attend that meeting, said her black friends and neighbors have shown a reluctance to participate. But their involvement is crucial, she said.

"There's so many people trying to help with the problem, but very few are African-American," she said. "If we don't get the people who live here - if they don't reach them to get them involved - how long will the effect be?"

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