Old town's new excitement Progress: A new police chief raises enthusiasm, building on his predecessor's success in getting residents involved.


EASTON -- Timothy Dills and Carolyn Jaffe wouldn't seem to have much in common beyond their love for walking the Colonial-era streets of their adopted hometown.

Dills is a Connecticut Yankee who made his name in the past decade as the developer who revitalized key properties in Easton's historic downtown.

Jaffe is a neighborhood activist who frequently slams the business community for ignoring the tattered neighborhoods that lie within a block or two of the glitzy shops, antique stores, law firms and brokerage houses.

But lately, Jaffe and Dills, along with many other business leaders and residents, say enthusiasm about the future of the nearly 300-year-old town is evident.

Dills sees a booming economy and renewed commitments contributing to the prosperity of the business district, while Jaffe sees immediate results from a state-funded anti-crime effort.

The arrival last week of Police Chief George M. Harvey, a 22-year veteran precinct commander from Baltimore County, was applauded as an important step in improving the 42-member force.

"All of the sudden, there just seems to be an excitement about Easton," Dills says. "The key is keeping what we have with the historic district and building on that. Easton looks like what every town of 11,000 people in America wishes it looked like. It just provides a wonderful backdrop for doing business."

Two signs that Easton's charm can translate to a solid bottom line came this spring when national retailers Talbot's and Brookstone announced plans to open stores in the Talbot County seat.

"This is an example of the kind of sophisticated market we have become," says Dills. "In the past, you wouldn't have seen national retailers willing to locate in a small market like this, especially in a downtown area. If it works for them, others will follow."

For Jaffe, the approval last summer of a $106,000 state Hot Spot grant -- one of 35 such crime-control programs in Maryland -- marked a turning point for the troubled East End and West End neighborhoods on the edges of the historic district.

The program concentrates the efforts of residents, police, parole and probation officers and juvenile authorities in neighborhoods where crime and fear have taken hold.

Perhaps the most important step was the opening of two neighborhood substations where officers on foot and bicycles provide a visible presence, Jaffe says.

She credits Col. Walter Chase, Harvey's predecessor as police chief, with initiating the neighborhood policing effort and with helping to secure the Hot Spot designation.

"For a long, long time, this has been looked at as a derelict area," says Jaffe, a transplant from Florida who leads the East End Neighborhood Association. "But we've been working bit by bit to change that."

Drug dealing was so prevalent, Jaffe says, that one night last summer she sat on a neighbor's front porch and counted 400 cars cruising the area between 10 p.m. and midnight.

Jaffe and others say the cooperative effort has sent drug dealers scurrying.

Police like citizen program

Officers who have worked the Hot Spot neighborhoods praise the program for strengthening the link between police and residents.

"We have volunteers taking those assignments," says Sgt. D. B. Sears, a 12-year veteran. "It makes a real difference having officers who want to get out and interact with people.

"[The substations have] a great command presence. It influences how people will act -- whether it's causing a disturbance, playing loud music, selling drugs or whatever," Sears says.

Joan Banks, who bought a coin laundry four years ago in the Port Street Condominium, a small strip center in the heart of the West End Hot Spot, says the program couldn't have come too soon.

Fear of retaliation by criminals has been the biggest obstacle for small-business owners and residents.

"This is a low-income area where people need decent housing, street-scape work and better lighting," Banks says. "The substation has been positive. We're working hard to get people involved, but they're scared. That's the thing that has to change."

Kathe Waskin, an interior designer who runs an upscale antique store next to the town hall on Harrison Street, says break-ins and robberies last winter, including the mugging of a front-desk clerk at the venerable Tidewater Inn, unnerved merchants -- many of them newcomers. She is pleased that an outsider such as Harvey was hired to head the Police Department.

Chase, the former chief, retired May 1 after 38 years in the department, the last four at the top.

"I realize that drugs are everywhere, but a lot of us came here to get away from this sort of thing," says Waskin, who moved from Potomac to open her business six years ago. "I think complacency tends to set in sometimes in small towns. An influx of new blood has helped spur the old-timers to work together for everything we have here."

Business leaders are working to revive downtown with help from Main Street Maryland, a state program designed to provide technical assistance and guidance.

Changes recommended

After a three-day assessment of Easton last month, state consultants said the downtown has too many first-floor offices that could be retail businesses. They also recommended that more people live in second- and third-floor units above downtown storefronts.

Both proposals would increase the number of people out shopping or dining at night, officials said.

While downtown night life has improved in recent years -- particularly with a year-round concert and entertainment series at the restored 400-seat Avalon Theatre -- business leaders think Easton needs more.

Stephen Mangasarian, a chef and restaurant owner who left Vermont last winter and went looking for an area that would accommodate his business and his love of sailing, says Easton was the best he saw. He searched from Massachusetts to South Carolina.

He has invested more than $300,000 in a 200-year-old house across the street from the Easton Historical Society. He lives above the soon-to-be restaurant and hopes to begin serving diners classic American cuisine and wines in a month.

"I loved the look of the town; it reminds me of Princeton [N.J.] or Edgartown [Mass.]," Mangasarian says. "It wasn't on a whim that I landed here. I spent a lot of time researching demographics.

"I've been in some areas after the boom, in the second wave. I feel certain that I'm here in the first wave."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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