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Harford County

Havre de Grace could be primed for glory (again) [commentary]

I wrote a while ago about Bel Air's success with its downtown, compared with the more dismal fate of small towns in the Midwest, especially.

I think now it might be Havre de Grace's turn.

The city has major plans to rebuild two downtown buildings, the opera house and the library (conveniently across the street from each other on North Union).

It is also set to (eventually) get a new, regional hospital near I-95, a new high school, a public art plan, a (slightly-controversial) bridge mural and an expanded waterfront park, thanks to a sale by now-council member Steve Gamatoria.

Then there's a sleek new hibachi grill and plans for a Royal Farms on what has been a historic, but somewhat rundown, "triangle" at the mouth of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge. (I'm excited for the Royal Farms, at any rate.)

City council members are also already pinning their high hopes on newly-hired economic development director Tom Lofland.

It's not hard to guess that a lot of the economic buzz is due to Harford County Executive David Craig's bid for the governor's seat. The high school and library projects especially wouldn't have gotten the big push without the upcoming election.

But regardless of elections and political will, I think Havre de Grace could be poised to make a comeback as a really thriving small town, if it plays its cards right.

The most obvious snag in this plan will probably continue to be the slow housing market, on which the city council has been relying for revenues. The sinking water and sewer fund continues to be a major challenge for the administration.

But I think there are bigger factors, that are not really in the city's control. For better or worse, everything revolves around transportation.

Havre de Grace could pull people - or business, etc. - from the more economically-troubled Port Deposit and Perryville areas, but the steep new tolls on the Hatem and I-95 bridges ($8 for a one-way trip??) will probably just solidify the historical "bridge divide."

And while downtown Havre de Grace is obviously close to I-95, I'm not sure it's close enough to attract attention.

Many high-profile commercial developments in the region are basically right off I-95, like The Avenue at White Marsh, the Constant Friendship/Box Hill area of Abingdon and the Canton Crossing area in Baltimore.

Havre de Grace should focus on what makes it unique, which I think includes things like the Opera House.

Not every small town has an opera house, and I think the idea of such a building is really elegant and magical, hearkening to a more glamorous stereotype of The Opera.

Personally, I think Havre de Grace could do well by just focusing on its more glamorous side. There's plenty of glamour in the city's history, although the main place it's visible may be the slightly-faded signs along the Promenade, which talk about life during the Jazz Age.

New buildings, more public amenities and some new businesses (I mentioned Royal Farms, right?) seem like a good sign for a city that's "unique on the Chesapeake," as the tourism office calls it.

I hope Havre de Grace can ride the wave and find more unusual, interesting reasons for people to see the town.

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