Concert by concert, ticket by ticket and trolley car by trolley car, Havre de Grace is transforming itself from a quiet community on the Susquehanna River into a regional arts hub for northern Maryland.
Since 2017, three new venues for live performances have either been established in the city or are under construction:
The historic 201-seat Opera House from 1870 resumed welcoming audiences in 2017 following a $4.2 million renovation. The publicly owned facility provides a stage for touring artists as well as local groups.
The privately owned 299-seat State Theatre of Havre de Grace reopened in early 2020 as a venue for alternative events from wrestling to rock concerts.
And last summer, the city acquired a former high school auditorium and gym and began work to convert it into an 800-seat theater. Once construction is completed, the renamed STAR Centre of Havre de Grace will host larger events. Programmers already have begun booking some concerts into the new venue; The tribute band EagleMania rocked out on the stage in July, while performer David Clark will bring his Billy Joel tribute band to the auditorium in August.
“After the reopening of the Opera House in 2017, Havre de Grace started to become an arts center and tourist destination,” said Rebecca Jessop, executive director of the Havre de Grace Arts Collective, which programs events into the Opera House. “You could feel the energy building.”
“Then the pandemic hit. All that energy never went away, but COVID-19 sort of put it on hold. Now, it’s starting to come back.”
Jessop is excited by a recently unveiled restoration plan for downtown. It will mean disruption in the short-term, she knows: streets that are torn apart and rerouted, favorite amenities that are temporarily off-limits.
“But in the long run, it will be worth it,” Jessop said. “It’s an amazing vision for what Havre de Grace could be.”
It was clear to city planners that Havre de Grace had tons of potential. But for decades, that potential was buried.
“Until about five years ago, I would never have set foot here.” said Jared Noe, owner of The State Theatre, the renovated venue that began its existence as an early 20th century movie palace.
“There definitely was a stigma. We called it ‘Have a Disgrace’. It had a reputation as a town full of good ol’ boys, a town where if music wasn’t country, it wasn’t music.”
Jessop traces the first steps toward change back to 2008, when Havre de Grace became the first arts and entertainment district in Harford County, a status that provided tax incentives to artists and to the owners of arts-related businesses in the district. (Bel Air was designated as the county’s second arts district in 2011.)
In some ways, the city’s development as a cultural hub was a no-brainer.
Havre de Grace is roughly midway between two larger East Coast arts centers: Wilmington, Delaware to the north and Baltimore to the south. Artists on tour traveling from one destination to the next often welcome the chance to perform an additional show, Jessop said.
And from its earliest days, Havre de Grace has been a microcosm for key tensions shaping American society:
During the First Congress in 1789, Havre de Grace was under consideration to be the nation’s capital, according to historical reports, losing to Washington, D.C., by just one vote. Before the Civil War, it played an important part of the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. And in the 1930s Havre de Grace was a haven for bootleggers. So notorious was the trade in illegal liquor that an episode in the fourth season of the HBO Prohibition-era drama, “Boardwalk Empire” was set in the city.
Moreover, some of America’s most famous citizens spent key moments of their lives in Havre de Grace.
The orator and writer Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom through the city in 1838. Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth grew up nearby in Bel Air.
Jessop noted that the Booths belonged to one of the most renowned theater families in America in the 19th century: the patriarch and actor Junius Brutus Booth (who excelled at portraying Shakespearean villains) and his talented actor son, Edwin Booth.
“Long before President Lincoln was killed, the Booths were an internationally famous family of actors,” she said. “The arts have always been a part Harford County.”
But it isn’t just the city’s history that makes it a potential cultural hub. Jessop said that Havre de Grace also boasts loads of natural charm.
“Havre de Grace is in a really great location on the waterfront,” she said. “It is an old city and has a lot of walkability. There are antique shops here and beds and breakfast inns. It presents a lot of opportunity for tourism.”
Noe said that the election of Mayor William T. Martin in 2015 was a key force in the city’s cultural revival because it placed a prominent supporter of the arts at the top of the city’s political hierarchy.
“That was the beginning of a new era in Havre de Grace,” Noe said. “We finally have a city administration that understands that promoting the city is good, that development is good, and that events and tourism are good.”
Noe said that Martin’s administration coincided with two new waves of cosmopolitan county residents.
As a result of the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005, he said, the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground transformed into a “megabase.” As a premiere center for research in science and technology, it brought in workers from diverse cultures.
In addition, the county recently had an influx of new LBGTQ residents, Noe said, many of whom commute to Washington. He pointed to the success of the inaugural Upper Chesapeake Bay Pride festival in Havre de Grace, which organizers estimate drew an estimated 5,000 visitors to the city in 2019.
“We’re seeing this huge migration of a young, sophisticated population moving into Harford County,” he said. “They’re often coming from other parts of the world and they’ve seen things there that they’d like to see here.”
The restoration plan, which was released in April, outlined a vision for the city aimed at including several of those in-demand amenities.
Among other things, Pennington Avenue, where the Opera House and STAR Centre are located, would become what the report described as the city’s “civic spine.” The report said the avenue would include a linear park with “art and storytelling opportunities woven into the space to reflect the history of the street and Havre de Grace.”
The Susquehanna River would be connected more closely to downtown through pedestrian and bike-friendly access points off of St. John Street, while a new pier off of Green Street would allow boaters to dock their boats, disembark and visit downtown businesses.
Finally, Washington Street, which the report described as “the beating heart of Havre de Grace” would continue to feature a mix of restaurants, outdoor cafes and shopping, while also serving as a site for city festivals and special events.
One new feature of city life — an electric trolley service known a “The Tide” — was introduced in mid-May. Four trolleys traverse a 3.5-mile wide loop between Millard Tydings Memorial Park and the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House during weekends and for special events. The service will be free for at least the first year, though officials say that a small fee might be imposed later to help defray maintenance costs.
Rob Tucker, an actor, director and theater teacher at Edgewood High School, thinks that Havre de Grace’s renewed investment in the arts has the potential to draw tourists and boost the city’s economy. But more important, he thinks it will encourage performers and audience members to expand their imaginations and think outside the box.
“For a municipality to provide performance spaces like the Opera House and STAR Centre is a real service,” he said.
“It’s a vehicle for the creation of art and ingenuity, and that helps move our community forward.”