Q&A with new Patapsco Heritage Greenway Director Mary Catherine Cochran

The Patapsco Heritage Greenway's new executive director shares plans for the valley

From the Thomas Viaduct bridge in Elkridge to the Benjamin Banneker Museum in Catonsville, passing through lush forest and old mill towns like Ellicott City and Oella, the Patapsco Valley holds a wealth of treasures.

For nearly 20 years, the Patapsco Heritage Greenway has been working to promote and conserve the historic and environmental assets of the valley. Now, with a recently awarded designation as a heritage area and its first-ever executive director, the group is poised to expand current projects and take on new ones in the valley over the next few years.

Three weeks into her new job, Executive Director Mary Catherine Cochran has been keeping busy attending retreats, learning how to be an environmental steward of the park's natural resources and writing grant proposals for the group.

Cochran, 55, whose appointment was unanimously approved by the Patapsco Heritage Greenway's board of directors, comes to the organization from Howard County General Hospital, where she was a communications project manager. She's also the founder of Preservation Howard County, where she created the annual top-10 endangered historic sites list and the Preservationist of the Year award. Last year, she managed communications for the county executive campaign of her sister, former Councilmember Courtney Watson.

Cochran sat down with the Howard County Times to talk about the next chapter for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The Patapsco Heritage Greenway has such a diverse array of assets. How would you describe the area to a visitor?

The Patapsco Heritage area is about 26 square miles. A lot of times people focus just on the park, but it's the whole valley. So it's the towns, it's these archaeological, historical sites that are within the park, it's the environment, it's the whole watershed. We're really looking at it holistically, promoting the area, because of its rich history.

A lot of our history and heritage was written by the natural resources, which was the river, and the river was the beginning of the innovation in the area.They're all interwoven, and our job is to tell that complete story, not just part of it.

Q: Sometimes, it seems, the environmental and historical interests of the area can clash. During the heritage area approval process last summer, Sierra Club raised concerns that incorporating Patapsco Valley State Park into the heritage area might put it at risk for encroachment in the future.

I think that sometimes people don't understand what a heritage area is, so when we talk about heritage tourism, that might be off-putting to some, but, you know, part of our job is to reassure them that when we're talking about heritage tourism, we're talking about bringing people to the town of Ellicott City to use the restaurants and the businesses there, and Catonsville and Elkridge. The park is a very small part of what we do. It's integral to the heritage area, but our mission is so much broader than that.

Q: What about the executive director job appealed to you?

I grew up in Howard County. I was one of those free-range kids. Go as far as you want, until you don't know the way home and then stop; that was the only rule. This job opportunity ... combined everything that I felt passionate about: preservation, conservation, being outside, Patapsco Park, which is right in our backyard, Patapsco Valley. So it felt like a good fit.

Q: What kind of work have you been doing so far in your first three weeks?

I came in in the middle of a grant cycle, so March has been consumed by grants. It's actually been a great training experience for me, because I have to know the organization very well in order to write the grants, and so I'm sort of learning and writing at the same time. Probably there isn't a better orientation to an organization than being thrown into the middle of a grant cycle.

Q: We're also in the middle of budget season, and state and local governments are looking at tight resources. Will that have any impact on the preservation area?

I think the goal of any organization is to become self-sustaining. I think the things that we do that are grant-dependent are things that are worth paying for: the stream cleanups are worth it; it's a good deal for the counties to give us grants to clean up 30 tons of trash. And there are funding mechanisms in the state of Maryland that fund heritage areas.

But the other thing, I think, that's important to remember is that in our case, heritage tourism is a huge source of revenue for the county and for the state. Every dollar that they spend is returned to them three-fold or nine-fold, depending on what the program is, through visitors or through people stopping, not just overnight visitors but people using the businesses and the restaurants along the way, or coming to the area.

Q: What are the next steps for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway?

We just received our certification in January. We'll be concentrating on a lot of organizational goals, including setting our structure, setting our initial goals, building a communications and marketing strategy. But we're also going to emphasize and continue our environmental programs, try to build volunteers for those programs, use metrics like number of tons of trash removed to see how we're meeting those goals. And then beef up the heritage side of things by creating new programs and building the programs that we have. Once we get to the point where we're able to market and communicate effectively, being able to market what the historic society's doing and what historic Ellicott City's doing and what Benjamin Banneker's doing; all of those things will help bring regional awareness, I think.

Q: How can Howard and Baltimore County residents join in?

There's tons of information on our website, patapscoheritagegreenway.org about all of our programs. They can also follow along on Facebook as we announce new programs that come up.

The organization is at its foundation, and we're building that strong foundation so that we can be fiscally sustainable. But the ideas and the things that people want to see and people want to do – we hope they'll come flooding in, because we're at that formative stage in our organization where we can really be flexible and adapt and change.

The valley belongs to the public; we're just the stewards of it at this point. We're going to need their help to do a good job.

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