With its historic Main Street and sloping hills lined with mill houses, old Ellicott City is known for its quaint beauty, which attracts scores of tourists each year. But some businessowners want to make the historic area attractive to those who live and work there, not just tourists.
Kim Kepnes, an Ellicott City resident and the owner of the Little French Market in old town Ellicott City, has been working to coordinate a new Saturday farmers market in the historic district that she hopes will draw locals and tourists alike.
"As a resident, what I found is we don't talk to our neighbors enough," Kepnes said one recent Saturday morning as she sat in front of her bakery, watching shoppers wander past market booths set up in the courtyard of Tonge Row.
Saturdays, she said, are "a time when time slows down. And what a place for time to slow down, in Ellicott City."
The Old Town Market may be Howard County's newest, but it has roots in another community tradition that Kepnes helped to establish five years ago, in 2009.
Earlier that year, she had opened the Little French Market, a cozy shop that sells coffee and baked goods, but wanted to branch out. Along with the owners of Randy & Steve's next door, she decided to try her hand at launching a Sunday market in front of her store.
Held once a month, the Second Sunday market grew into an event where community members could catch up.
"I would see more neighbors at the Second Sunday market than anywhere else," Kepnes said.
Then, last fall, news broke that two Howard County farmers markets – one at the East Columbia library branch and the other at the Glenwood library – would be shutting down for good when market season came to a close in November. Later, some vendors from the East Columbia market decided to continue to sell their products at the location on Thursdays, although they are no longer supported by the Howard County Farmers' Market Board.
Kepnes got a call from Rose Caulder, the market manager at Glenwood and a recurring vendor at Second Sunday. Caulder is the owner of Breezy Willow, a small, family organic farm located in West Friendship. She wanted to know if Kepnes would be interested in helping move the Glenwood market to Ellicott City.
"When they closed the two markets, we had vendors who were displaced, small businesses that needed a home," Caulder said. Kepnes, she added, "is always trying to bring people to Ellicott City, and we needed a place for our farmers. We looked at it as a positive thing for both ends."
In order for the idea to be viable, however, the new market needed to be weekly.
Together, and with some help from the county's Economic Development Authority, Caulder and Kepnes came up with a plan for the Old Town Market, invited vendors and acquired the necessary permits. On May 10, the new farmers market got its launch.
A month after the market began, Saturday shoppers perused the booths sprinkled around Tonge Row, sampling fresh feta cheese made of sheep's milk as harp and guitar duo The Mighty Kelltones played Celtic and Appalachian music in the background.
The Old Town Market assembles 16 vendors, offering an assorted selection of wares that Caulder calls "unique, like Ellicott City." In addition to fresh produce and meats, vendors sell baked goods, honey, Thai spices, pickles, bread, flowers, ice cream and salsa.
The market is also distinct from others in the county in that it hosts two vendors who sell prepared foods: Saturday shoppers can spring for a lunch of wood-fired pizza from River House Pizza Co., or smoked beef brisket from Paulie's Pit Beef. Caulder said the market's proximity to other shops makes it easier to plug in all the equipment needed for cooking.
And while the rest of the county's markets are held in parking lots removed from other shopping – with the exception of the Sunday market at Oakland Mills Village Center – Kepnes said part of what she hopes will be the lure of the Old Town Market is that it's located just off of Main Street.
"This community has something that no other market event like it can offer, and that's the vista of town and a combination of small markets," she said. "It's not a tent, a table and a parking lot where we're encouraging people to grab and go. They're staying."