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Howard, Baltimore Counties Collaborate on State Park Improvements

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Patapsco Valley State Park (PVSP) is a popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers and picnickers. It’s so attractive, in fact, that park rangers frequently have to close the park entrances on summer weekends due to overcrowding.

Park managers predict the problem may worsen when the nearby Guinness Open Gate Brewery and Barrel House opens later this year and begins attracting 300,000 visitors annually. Upcoming milestone anniversaries down the line for the B&O Railroad and Thomas Viaduct are also expected to generate visitor increases.

With so many people already taking advantage of the history, nature and outdoor recreation opportunities PVSP has to offer, the Patapsco Heritage Greenway (PHG) has begun conducting annual summits with community stakeholders to discuss ways to leverage Howard and Baltimore counties’ resources and enhance the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area (PVHA) shared by both jurisdictions.
“A few points that came out of our first summit were that we have to build upon cross-county and cross-community collaboration,” said PHG Vice President Victoria Goodman. “We’re interested in visualizing Route 1 as a unification Corridor for Elkridge, St. Denis, Halethorpe and Relay, building a more robust Catonsville/Ellicott City tourism corridor and establishing trail connections that strengthen these corridors.”

At the organization’s second annual summit, held last month at Grace Episcopal Church, in Elkridge, local residents and community stakeholders brainstormed on possible solutions for challenges related to the Thomas Viaduct, trails and trail connections, the visitor experience and park infrastructure.

Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein and Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk were also on hand to co-host and share some of their own ideas.

Tapping Guinness

During the summit, Guinness Open Gate Brewery Marketing Manager Oliver Gray presented an overview of what his visitors center’s summer opening might mean for the park, not only in terms of an anticipated 300,000 annual visitors, but also in terms of partnership and collaboration.

“We’re dedicated to getting involved [with local communities and organizations],” Gray said. “We really don’t want to show up and just be ‘Guinness the monolith.’ We have big plans for tourism and community outreach. Diageo, Guinness’s parent company, chose Maryland for a reason, partly because our site’s heritage is so great.”

In terms of trails, as well as economies and activities, summit participants recommended finding opportunities to connect Elkridge and Relay to the Guinness facility.

“One idea is to convert River Road on the Baltimore County side to a one-way street with a trail using the other lane, and creating an entity to create information and partnerships to advance the trail network,” said participant Don Halligan, senior transportation planner for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. “The biggest challenge is money.”

Participant Anthony Cordo, executive director of Howard County Tourism, noted that parking is an opportunity.

“We want to increase the visitor experience without decreasing the residents’ experience,” he said. “How do we handle all these people coming in and give them a great experience without destroying the park or all the things we love about the area?”

Participants also suggested finding ways for the park to tie in to the arts experiences across the area, Cordo said.

Viaduct Bicentennial

The Thomas Viaduct won’t celebrate its bicentennial until 2035, but a lot of work needs to be done until then to make it presentable, not to mention viewable.

Structural improvements and the education of schoolchildren, locals and visitors should be priorities, said PHG Board Member Lisa Wingate. “We want to celebrate this bridge in an effort to enhance public awareness.”

Built between 1833 and 1835, it was the longest railroad bridge in America at its completion, as well as the first multi-span masonry railroad bridge to be built on a curve. Doubts as to its engineering soundness have long been laid to rest, and it continues to withstand the demands of frequent, continued use and ever-increasing freight tonnage.

Participants agreed that a ground level viewing platform should be pursued with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which owns the land the bridge occupies.

“Four possible sites have been identified,” Wingate said, adding that an upper-level viewing area also should be considered.

Another challenge, she said, is to establish a leadership entity for the multiple groups engaged in studying the bridge and preparing for its bicentennial, which include PHG, PVHA, Preservation Maryland, and representatives from Preservation Howard County and the local school systems.

Sustainability Issue

According to Karen Gaffel, park sustainability is already an issue in the park’s Avalon area in terms of parking, bathrooms and other facilities, and the removal of Bloede Dam will create more opportunities for recreation in that area.

“You can’t build [amenities] in flood plain areas like the Simkins [Mill] property, and all-day use and trash creates a significant amount of damage to vegetation, yet the public wants that to be an area that’s accessible and useable,” Gaffel said. “There’s a conflict between what can be provided and what the public wants out of it.”

Aside from facilities, invasive species control and overcrowding remain ongoing, recurring problems for the park.

“The idea is to find other areas to develop into areas people want to go picnic in and spend time in outside of Patapsco when it gets full,” Gaffel said, suggesting that a reservation mechanism for parking could help.

“We’ve been working to get some synergy around renewing the historic area of Elkridge and highlight the fact that it was a huge part of Maryland and United States history,” said Weinstein.

Roads, parking and other challenges are important factors to consider early, he said, before the park begins to experience an increase in spillover traffic from Guinness visitors and more attention being paid to the park’s historic significance.

Weinstein and Quirk said they are working with legislators during the current General Assembly in hopes of securing funding for a pedestrian bridge to connect the Ellicott City and Oella sides of the Patapsco River.

“It’s a sustainability issue, how we leverage limited funding and priorities that don’t make it all the way down to things like parks,” Weinstein said. “Community renewal, economic development, Guinness and the historical things happening with the bicentennial are all individually great, but collectively they’re a more compelling story to make an investment.

“Our efforts illustrate that the river binds the communities,” he said, “on both sides of the Patapsco.”