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Elkton seeks an identity to revive business district Themes considered include history and quick marriages


Elkton, the Cecil County seat that anchors the northeastern corner of Maryland, is having an identity crisis.

Everyone in town agrees something needs to be done to revive downtown. But what?

Should Elkton exploit its pre-World War II image as the marriage capital of America? Build boutiques to attract upscale shoppers? Promote its rich Colonial architecture and history? Or capitalize on being the center of legal, governmental and banking activity in the county?

"We need a theme," says town Commissioner Robert Alt, who is spearheading the renewal effort in the town of nearly 10,000 people that overlooks the Elk River at the top of the Chesapeake Bay.

Like scores of other small towns in Maryland, Elkton is struggling to keep its aging business district prosperous. A theme would give the town a sense of unity, Mr. Alt said, and give people a reason to come downtown.

Stroll down Elkton's Main Street and you'll see a hodgepodge of businesses -- a five-and-dime department store, tattoo studio, jeweler, bakery, hair salon, travel agency, a couple of pharmacies and dozens of law offices drawn there by the Cecil County Circuit Court, the District Court and a state office building.

Elkton's long-standing claim to fame: the Little Wedding Chapel, a stone townhouse with pink trim built in the 1800s and converted into a wedding parlor in the 1920s.

Could it be the centerpiece of Elkton's elusive theme?

Marriage on their minds

Mr. Alt thinks so. In his informal survey of townspeople, he finds Elkton's history as the place to wed without a wait kept coming up.

The marriage business was a major industry in Elkton in the 1930s. You could come to Maryland, buy a marriage license without taking a blood test, get married and then get out of town in a few hours. Neighboring states required a waiting period of at least two days.

And Elkton, just inside the Maryland-Delaware border and less than 10 miles from Pennsylvania, was the logical destination of out-of-state couples who wanted to get hitched in a hurry -- as many as 17,000 a year at its peak in 1938.

If Elkton were to adopt a marriage theme, town fathers would want couples to marry and stay for a while.

It could happen, Mr. Alt suggested, by adding a couple of bridal shops, another jewelry store and a bed and breakfast in one of the many old Victorian homes on the edge of downtown.

Suzan Doordan, executive director of the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, said the marriage theme could be promoted tastefully.

In all, about 5,000 couples a year still choose to marry in Elkton, either in the county courthouse's chapel for $30 or in the Little Wedding Chapel, said Erma Keetley, supervisor of the Cecil County Marriage Bureau.

"Possibly in February, we could decorate the town and offer carriage rides for wedding parties. We get 35 to 50 phone calls a week on how to get married in this town," Ms. Doordan said.

Not everyone loves the idea, though.

Barbara Foster is one. She owns the Little Wedding Chapel, where 15 to 20 couples a week get married for as little as $95 each.

"I think anything is good that brings business into town, but I don't like the idea of this turning into another Las Vegas," where couples are married in production-line fashion, she said.

Other residents prefer to look back a little further in Elkton's past for a workable theme. Like 200 years or so.

Settled in 1772

The area was settled as early as 1772, when most of what today is Elkton was owned by Robert Alexander, a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. His homestead still stands on the edge of town, nicely restored.

Main Street is dotted with historic buildings, including a Revolutionary War hospital, the 225-year-old Partridge Hill home of Colonial legislator Henry Hollingsworth and the 150-year-old Howard House hotel, now a restaurant. Add a couple antique stores and a boutique or two and you'd have yourself a tourist attraction, Ms. Doordan said.

Maybe even a theme.

Or maybe Elkton should think about reaching into the '90s and go "upscale" to meet the needs of a more sophisticated clientele, said Jean Anwyll, a Main Street shopper who moved to town two years ago from Philadelphia. Elkton could use a gourmet coffee shop or a good bookstore or a place to buy fresh seafood, she said.

"I think we need to focus on the business day and make the town more inviting for the people already here," said Diane Hair, who owns Elkton Florist.

Art, music proposed

She suggests the town sponsor art exhibits, lunchtime concerts or children's activities, perhaps on the little brick square next to Town Hall, "to bring people out of their offices and onto Main Street."

If something isn't done soon, she fears, businesses will begin leaving Elkton.

Mr. Alt doesn't think that will happen.

Town commissioners have set aside $25,000 to hire a consultant to survey the business district, analyze its potential for renewal and determine whether federal or state funding is available.

Ultimately, he hopes, a public-private partnership like those that have brought some success to other aging commercial districts around the state will emerge in Elkton.

And with it, Elkton's identity.

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