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Merchants seek ways to revitalize Ellicott City


When Ed Williams was searching for a place to set up a shop specializing in classic and creative toys, he searched quaint towns with tourist appeal from New England to Virginia before settling on Ellicott City's historic district.

He said he believed the 19th century buildings and the district's rich vein of American history had strong business potential.

Today Mr. Williams, who also serves as the B&O; Railroad Museum director, and other members of the Ellicott City Merchant's Association are struggling for ways to sharpen the town's rich heritage as a draw for shoppers and tourists.

As Mr. Williams likes to put it, "This city has a lot of stories to tell from its past. I firmly believe its future is rooted in its past."

Merchants in the 85-member association are planning to take a more aggressive approach to promote the diversity of the district's shops, which include at least seven specializing in antiques and several offering handmade crafts.

"The historic Ellicott City area has shops you just won't find in a mall, and a lot of the shop owners run their business in a way no mall would allow. There's a real independent streak here," says Courtney Wilson, who operates American Military Antiques, a Civil War collectibles store.

The city's diverse history as a key milling and industrial town has boosted attendance at the railroad museum higher than expectations this year, says Mr. Williams.

Some merchants would like to capitalize on the heritage as well, broadening the district's appeal and recognition beyond the county.

Some association members bemoan the fact that while the historic area of shops, homes, churches and former mills has retained its rustic 19th century mill town charm, it has never established strong recognition beyond Howard County.

The association's focus in the past several years has been on organizing events, such as the recent "Midnight Madness" Christmas sale, to draw shoppers to the area. It also publishes and distributes a guide to the city's historical sites, shops and galleries.

The association is made up of merchants in the historic area clustered along the hilly ground and banks of the Patuxent River. Members pay $110 annual dues.

"Our big problem is that we have never really been able to get people outside of the county to think of Ellicott City as a day trip destination the way people think of Annapolis or Georgetown," says Leslie Meilman, a business association member who operates Rugs To Riches, a textiles specialty shop on Main Street.

A path to strengthening the historic district's visibility is to play up the city's 19th century history often and sponsor events with tie-ins to the city's history.

In particular, Mr. Williams would like to see more merchants get involved with events in which volunteers dress up in 18th, 19th or 20th century period outfits. Visitors could be treated to history lessons about the town at the same time.

The "scenarios," as Mr. Williams calls them, have been tried on occasion by members of the Patapsco Guard, a local Civil War history group that Mr. Williams commands.

For example, last summer members of the Guard showed up in the town dressed in uniform. Other volunteers strolled the town in Civil War period dress.

Shoppers and tourists were treated to skits of Guard detectives hunting in shops for hiding spies. Fife and drum corps music was played in the town square.

Guard members passed on historical tidbits about the original Guard's role in the Civil War, which included burial duty after Gettysburg.

"People loved it," recalls Ms. Meilman, the textiles shop owner.

The B&O; Museum routinely uses the same techniques. During the Christmas season, visitors can watch volunteers decorating wreaths and Christmas trees with oyster shells and other items popular in the 19th century.

While some merchants support playing up the city's heritage, other more pressing concerns for improving the town's name recognition and business will be topical when the association seats a new slate of directors in January, according to association members.

Addressing the area's basic visitor needs -- parking, and easy-to-find public restrooms and phones -- are key concerns.

"The very first thing a lot of people ask me when they come in the shop is, 'Where are the restrooms in this town?" says Mr. Wilson, of the military antiques shop.

Business association members hope to stir up interest in building a visitors center near one of the public parking lots. Shoppers and tourists would find restrooms, phones and information about the town's shops, restaurants and many historical sights.

Mr. Williams thinks the visitors center could be built as a replica of a working 19th century mill.

No one has come up with an accurate cost of building and maintaining such a center, but Mr. Williams and other association members say the association couldn't fund it alone.

The visitors center would take an alliance of private businesses, state, county and other local nonprofit historical groups to marshal funding for the project, members say.

"I looked at historic towns from Pennsylvania to Virginia to open my shop, and settled on Ellicott City because of its uniqueness. It's eclectic," Mr. Williams says. "What the association has to do is get more merchants involved in offering visitors these opportunities and get the word out we're here."

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