Jack Dingman recounted an idyllic childhood in Dundalk and looked around the Heritage Fair on Saturday wishing for the blue-collar community to return to the glory that had been bolstered by a booming steel plant.
The 28-year-old contractor, who now lives in Middle River, grew up less than a mile from the fairgrounds, and said he used to walk to the festival past thriving stores, restaurants and barbershops.
"I love Dundalk, and I am proud to be from Dundalk," Dingman said. "But it breaks my heart.
"I'm really disappointed in it, seeing what it was and what it is now."
The waterfront community in Baltimore County is the subject of a $1.3 million re-branding campaign by the nonprofit Dundalk Renaissance Corp., which is intended to highlight Dundalk's affordable housing and neighborly atmosphere to attract new families.
The campaign was front and center at the fair — which ends Sunday with a headliner show by country music star Travis Tritt. A banner at the site declared, "This is my town," and invited people to "Discover," "Revitalize," and "Connect."
Tom Toporovich, the fair's master of ceremonies and longtime Dundalk civic activist, said the three-day fair with its projected 55,000 visitors is the pride of the community. Organizers say the fair, followed by a parade and fireworks on the Fourth of July, is believed to be the nation's largest Independence Day celebration.
Toporovich said the event celebrates the best of what Dundalk has to offer: "The people."
The marketing campaign, with the slogan, "Live the unexpected," also features $5,000 Golden Key grants to entice home buyers and a website to promote Dundalk's 24 neighborhoods and 43 miles of shoreline.
It's aimed at combating perceptions found in a 2011 survey that Dundalk is "polluted and dirty with rats, drugs and a high crime rate" and lacks retail amenities.
Jennie Beecher, a longtime Dundalk resident who lives on Cornwall Road, said she thinks the re-branding campaign is a good idea. She said she used her network as an independent contractor with The Pampered Chef to encourage people to come out to the fair and see Dundalk for themselves.
"People get the wrong idea, because people don't always talk about the good in their communities," Beecher said.
Beecher, who has run a stand for her business at the fair for about a decade, said she'd received RSVPs to come to the fair and check out the community from nearly 90 people from places such as Severn, Odenton and Rising Sun.
Such grass roots community-building is the sort of action that will change Dundalk's image, she said.
Alleen Baker and her niece, Erin Riegel, stopped to have lunch Saturday next to a display that featured big, glossy photos of Dundalk and the captions, "We are proud of our history," "We need you" and "We are a vibrant community."
Baker, a federal worker, said living in Dundalk all her life, she's heard detractors call it "Dumb-dalk" or refer to it as a "low-life community," but she said the families who live there always step up to volunteer or make donations for important causes.
"I think it's a great place, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," Baker said.
Nearby, Becky Catron, and her husband, Michael, spread out a picnic blanket and set out folding chairs Saturday for family and friends in front of the stage at the fair, an event they rarely miss.
Catron, a real estate agent who grew up in Dundalk, said the community has everything a family would want: sports outlets, recreational activities and "neighbors who watch out for you." She said she misses Dundalk since moving to Perry Hall about a dozen years ago.
The marketing campaign is "definitely necessary" to help get the word out about what Dundalk has to offer, Catron said.
Dundalk's Heritage Fair features rides, games, food and live music at Dundalk Heritage Park, 2717 Playfield St. The fair, now in its 38th year, ends Sunday. Hours are noon to 10 p.m. Admission is $7; children 12 and younger are free.