Enalee E. Bounds has been running Ellicott's Country Store on Main Street in historic Ellicott City for 50 years, telling customer after customer that they have stepped into a house that could be the oldest "duplex" in the country — built in the late 18th or early 19th century — and how Mr. Walker lived on one side, Mr. Chandler on the other.
In her view, Main Street hasn't changed so much since her family bought the store in 1962, and she doesn't see why it should.
"It could always be spiffed up," said Bounds, whose store boasts four floors of antiques and home furnishings and an interior design service. "I'd hate to see it change."
She expects to be at the George Howard Building when County Executive Ken Ulman holds a public session at 7 p.m. Tuesday to discuss what the county has done and plans to do to support the historic district. He and the County Council member who represents the area say the stores, restaurants and historic sites along Main Street are doing nicely, but there's room for improvement.
Ulman says the county is "maintaining something that's working, but enhancing it," with particular attention to two long-standing concerns: parking and floods. At Tuesday's session, Ulman and other officials are also expected to talk about the new apartments and recreation center being built just outside the historic district and a police substation due to open this fall in the old post office on Main Street that now serves as the Howard County Welcome Center.
"We've been working on different programs ... to keep it a viable historic district," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents the area.
For two years, county officials have been meeting with merchants, property owners and others to talk about what needs attention. Parking comes up often.
"That's probably the biggest bone" of contention for merchants, said David Carney, president of the Ellicott City Business Owners Association and a co-owner of the Wine Bin on the upper end of Main Street. "I'm very fortunate to have my own parking lot" with 12 spaces, the only private lot in the historic district.
"Everyone has a different idea of what the [parking] problem is," he said, but there's a consensus that there is a problem.
Amid talk several years ago about building a parking garage, a study conducted for the county found that the trouble is not a lack of spaces. Ulman said the study concluded that the area needs better management of existing parking, not a new garage.
The study concluded that there are enough parking spaces but visitors cannot necessarily find them. Ulman said he recognizes that parking "can be a perceived barrier" to commerce, and the county is working on a solution.
Following in the footsteps of such cities as Los Angeles, Boston and Fort Worth, Texas, the county is going to try a high-tech approach to parking and become the first in Maryland to do so. Under a contract with Streetline, a company based outside San Francisco, the county will launch a project using a mobile application that will show Ellicott City visitors with an iPhone or other device how many parking spaces are open and where they are.
Stephen W. Lafferty, director of special projects for the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the project will cover 594 parking spaces on the street and in parking lots in the district, not including the courthouse. He said the $319,000 contract includes the cost of installing equipment and one year of service.
"I've become a real devotee of this solution," Ulman said. He says the system uses an array of "hockey puck-size" contraptions placed in the ground at each parking space linked electronically to sensors mounted on utility poles.
Carney says he does not expect the system to solve the parking problem, but he believes it will help, and he gives Ulman credit for advocating the idea.
"I think it's a pretty bold move on the part of the county executive to do this," Carney said. "I'm extremely excited."
Another persistent sore point is the area's tendency to flood during storms as water spills into streets from either the Patapsco River, which crosses the lower end of Main Street, or its tributaries, which run behind the street and under the pavement.
A sign on a wooden pillar near the B&O Railroad Museum Ellicott City Station shows historic high-water marks: 21.5 feet in 1868, 14.5 feet during Hurricane Agnes in 1972, 9 feet in 1923 and 1975, 7 feet in 1952.
At Ellicott's Country Store, Bounds keeps handy at the counter a couple of snapshots showing Main Street underwater in 1972, with parking meter heads and the roof of a car poking above the ripples.
Last year's early September rains associated with Tropical Storm Lee brought more flooding. Bounds said it was the first time she can recall seeing the waters flowing from the upper end of Main Street.
Ulman said the county is considering ways to control storm water, including some that would create more spots where visitors can see otherwise concealed streams.
"We'd like to open up the waterfront" and perhaps create some small parks, Ulman said. A few places in town, including Tiber Park, off Main Street, and a group of picnic and park benches near the cluster of stores at Tonge or Tongue Row provide water views.
Whatever the county does, Carney says, there's sure to be a wide range of opinion among business owners.
While some are faring better than others in a tough economy, he said, "for the most part, I think business is good."
At I Love Theatre, a Main Street store specializing in sports and theater paraphernalia, co-owner Michael Kornstein says there's nothing the county can do to help his business short of handing out spending money.
"Three-quarters of the people who walk in don't have money to spend," said Kornstein, whose store has been open since 1995 and in its current spot since 1997. "That's the problem. ... People don't have the kind of money they used to have."
Bounds, though, said there's nothing the county needs to do. Asked how her business is doing, she answered quickly: "Fine, or I wouldn't be here for 50 years."