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What’s Next for Historic Ellicott City?

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By Mark R. Smith, Editor-in-Chief

Many comments can be made about the flash flood that tore through Historic Ellicott City’s Main Street on that fateful night of July 30, 2016.

The bad parts — the shock, the damage, the financial losses, the horror that included three deaths — have all been extensively documented; and the positives — the quick response of police, fire and rescue; and the support of governments, the business and nonprofit communities, and area residents — created a recovery that has been described in the most respectful tones.

Today, Downtown Ellicott City has reached an intriguing crossroads. The flood actually facilitated planned upgrades that are getting done sooner, rather than later; at the same time, the new master plan that was recommended after the Urban Land Institute (ULI) study earlier this year (see The Business Monthly, February 2017) is moving toward its latter stages.

Back on the street, while the public sympathy factor helped boost many of the businesses that were badly affected during the early stages of the recovery during the 2016 holiday season, this year’s strong holiday showing proved equally, if not more, encouraging.

While it’s overstating the case to say that Main Street has come all the way back, it’s now in an interesting juxtaposition of being in post-recovery while key decisions are being made about its future.

Watershed Watch

As for the master plan, the next part of the presentation is set for public workshop No. 4, which is tentatively scheduled for February at a date and location to be determined.

Karen Besson, board president for the Ellicott City Partnership, is “encouraged that the development for the master plan is, so far, progressing on schedule, and I’m impressed by the county’s investment in it. The next step will be to continue to seek public input concerning several components, including the market study, the watershed protection and infrastructure design, and the overall improvements.”

Completing that part of the project will be followed by another public workshop during the week of March 5, at which point the public will be invited to see the draft. The final plan will be presented by Mahan Rykiel Associates, an architectural firm from Baltimore, hopefully in mid-May.

Referring to the PowerPoint presentation that was made available to the public on Nov. 14, Besson said local business owners’ two biggest concerns were addressing parking issues and, of course, future flooding concerns.

The latter issue is why obtaining information and feedback about controlling the watershed has been prioritized while drafting the master plan.

“The original plan was to have a draft from the lead consultant, Mahan Rykiel Associates, by May 2018,” said Pete Conrad, deputy director of the Howard County Office of Planning and Zoning. “However, we’ve opted to take a closer look, and we’re trying to make sure we get a better handle on what that would entail. We want to look at it from policy, infrastructure, historic, engineering and economic revitalization objectives to come up with the best possible approach.

“So,” Conrad said, “the schedule may be pushed back, but we plan to have that part of the study done by May.”

Still, while “one recommendation of the ULI study that was completed earlier this year was to create a master plan,” said Tom McGilloway, a principal with Mahan Rykiel, “we are being careful not to reinvent the wheel. Our role is to focus on flood mitigation and reinforce the business district and retailers, as well as overseeing connections for open space and pedestrian networks.”

One challenge that the firm is facing is that Ellicott City is not a municipality. That means “to implement the plan, there must be many partners, including the Ellicott City Partnership, the county and local residents, the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, etc., and finding out how they can work most effectively together,” McGilloway said, adding, “Could there be a special benefits district?”

Findings from May’s hydraulic hydraulogy study, by McCormick Taylor, have been key to learning more about what can be done. “We’re working with them on effective intervention,” he said.

Whatever the recommendations, Downtown Ellicott City “will never be flood proof,” McGilloway said, “but we want to make it more flood resistant. But by adding wider stream channels, for instance, water conveyance can be an amenity, and become a gathering area and open space. And most of the time, it won’t be flooded.”

Inspirational Recovery

The other side of what’s going on in Ellicott City has to do with what’s happening on the street, which is considerable, especially given the circumstances of the past 18 months.
“Interestingly, we’re [above 90%] occupancy of historic district real estate, which is pretty much unprecedented for these types of situations,” said Conrad.

Unprecedented, and maybe then some. “What we’ve accomplished, from the business recovery side, is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Phil Nichols, assistant chief administrative officer for Howard County. “Much of the credit goes to the business owners. They buckled down and made this happen. Of the 104 businesses were impacted, 100 of them came back.”

To illustrate the depth of the recovery, Nichols cited figures from the Small Business Administration, which reveal that only 25% of businesses usually return after a disaster of this type and magnitude. “And Downtown Ellicott City has a 98% occupancy rate, as well as 190 residents back in place.

“And,” he said, “we’ve also attracted 18 new businesses since the rebuild took place, giving us a total of 118, since some spaces were divided upon the rebuild. More are on the way.” Perhaps the most prominent of the businesses that closed, Cacao Lane, “was more of a landlord decision. It is being converted to first floor retail, with apartments above. And The Rumor Mill will be apartments, too,” Nichols said.

But for now, Nichols said that the stakeholders are anticipating the three design plans that will speak to the flooding mitigation issue.

“The [2016] storm was a one-in-1,000-year event,” he said. “We had a smaller flood in August where the water came up above the channel on the west end of downtown, over the banks and onto the roadway. There was some minor property damage, but that was it.”

Debt Remains

While the business owners in the historic district are encouraged by what’s happening with the master plan and on the street, they’re not pretending their balance sheets are back where they want them yet, either.

“We had a better Christmas this year than we did last year by the 20th,” said Robin Holliday, owner of HorseSpirit Art Gallery, on Main Street, “and Midnight Madness was crazy busy. I couldn’t have been more pleased.”

That’s because the majority of today’s shoppers are coming Downtown because, simply put, they enjoy Ellicott City. “Last year, it was also about people being supportive, but now it’s everything that follows,” said Holliday. “That includes many of us still dealing with the emotional aftermath of the flood, as well as the financial setbacks.

“Many of us are still in debt, including me,” she said, “and I still have trouble sleeping because I think about holding my gallery door closed as the flood rushed by.”

Still, the large helping of community spirit that has been bestowed upon Main Street business owners and residents has resulted in a positive emotional investment on many fronts.

For instance, the Howard County Arts Council (HCAC) put together the Recreate Relief Grant to help artists whose work was destroyed. “After the storm, I owed my artists $55,000,” Holliday said. “The HCAC gave out $27,000 in grants to artists in my gallery alone to replace their damaged work; many other artists in town received grant money, as well. That was especially important because my insurance company wouldn’t reimburse me.”

And there was help from building owners, too. “Don Reuwer [president of Waverly Real Estate Group] owns a significant amount of the property down here, and he’s our landlord,” she said. “He had all of his people up and running by late fall [2016] and made sure we were ready for the holiday season.

“That was an absolute blessing,” said Holliday, noting that, soon enough, Reuwer’s buildings had new floors, new heating and air conditioning systems, etc. “He went above and beyond. My building is better in the long run, thanks to him.”

Much Appreciation

Like many of her fellow stakeholders in the historic district, Holliday is very appreciative of the various people who have dedicated time and energy to the master plan.

“Some are employed by the county and state, but there are countless others involved who are doing so out of the goodness of their hearts. I wish I had more time to do likewise,” she said, “but I’m busy running the business.”

That seems to be a good thing to be doing in the historic district these days. Howard County Councilmember Jon Weinstein said he walks up and down Main Street “about every weekend, and I’m seeing what looks like a great number of people shopping.”

Those people will be getting an even better experience in the coming years, when the recommendations of the master plan are implemented, including changes that might take place at the 174-year-old Circuit courthouse property, which is now out to public bid.

“When the court moves in three or four years, the old one will be up for some reimaging, said Weinstein. “In 2018, we hope to start looking into that, maybe for arts, visual arts, restaurants and other activity, including parking, sidewalks and connection to Main Street.”

While work on the master plan begins to wind down, Besson feels that Historic Ellicott City’s future looks bright.

“Going forward, we’re looking for continued recovery and business retention. Many of the returning businesses along Main Street are still recovering from losses of inventory, fixtures and equipment,” she said, “so we’re aiming to strengthen our practices to make those businesses more resilient.”

Most encouraging, perhaps, is the positive way that the outside business community is viewing Main Street. “This town has always been very resilient and keeps bouncing back,” Besson said, recalling its rebirth after the Hurricane Agnes flooding in 1972.

“But,” she said, “know that this is a continuing process.”

And considering that the most recent main event [in 2016] was a 1,000-year flood, a little more patience to refine the master plan doesn’t seem like a big request.

“The flood was a disaster that could have torn the community apart,” said Weinstein. “Instead, it drew us closer together.”