One of the best ideas for helping Historic Ellicott City reach its full potential may have died before it ever got a chance. If so, the cause of death can be traced to one of the most dreaded words of contemporary civic discourse: Taxes.
Should we be surprised?
A proposal to establish a special tax district along the quaint row of shops and restaurants was unceremoniously trashed last week by merchants. They argued that such a tax would be passed along to customers, who would then shun their Main Street establishments.
We will never know if the benefits of the proposal would have outweighed these losses.
The idea got such a poor reception that County Executive Charles Ecker, whose task force came up with the proposal, said he cannot support it. Sadly, in inflicting a mortal wound on the idea, the Ellicott City historic district may have harmed itself.
As pointed out in a preliminary report, revenues from a special taxing district could be used for promotional activities and beautification projects. Most important, perhaps, those funds could be used to create more parking, the shortage of which is a persistent complaint among merchants.
Driving all of this is the notion that a special tax district forces Main Street storekeepers to take greater responsibility for amenities that they have traditionally turned to county government to fund. While businesses in Columbia and elsewhere in Howard provide their own parking, for example, Ellicott City parking is provided and maintained by the county.
That sort of inequity has merchants in Savage and Elkridge calling for similar treatment. In these financially strapped times, however, it is unreasonable to expect the county to provide more than basic services for private enterprise.
Likewise, Main Street merchants seem to need the cold water of reality splashed in their faces. If they want the kind of amenities that will attract customers, they need to pay for them.
Absent the kind of numbers that would weigh costs and benefits, the merchants' complaints about the harm a special tax district would cause ring hollow. Unfortunately, without merchant support, we may never know the answers those numbers would provide.