Historic Ellicott City partnership wants to hire town manager

An excursion train to transport passengers between Ellicott City and Baltimore via existing railroad tracks is one of the ideas being considered by a revamped Main Street organization.

Uncovering the portion of the Tiber River that currently flows under a parking lot and transforming it into an attraction — instead of treating it like an asphalt-covered nuisance — is another.

These two concepts are being discussed by the Ellicott City Historic District Partnership, which replaced the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation in June. Among its initiatives, the partnership has joined with the Ellicott City Business Association and has opened its membership to residents.

But the centerpiece of the new organization will be the hiring of a town manager to flesh out these ideas and others. The partnership board is working to raise as much as $200,000 to fund the new position and establish an office.

"We're looking for the town to speak with fewer voices, and to strengthen those voices," said Andy Hall, a Main Street attorney who is serving as the partnership's interim president until annual elections are held in April. "That will give us a better chance of being heard."

That's a goal shared by county government, said Ed Lilley, longtime president of the restoration foundation and manager of the Howard County Welcome Center, housed in the former Main Street post office.

"The county desires a more unified town," he said. That shared outlook, along with new blood among Main Street's business owners and more area residents clamoring to be involved in town matters, was the catalyst for the new approach.

The position of town manager would bring to the historic town something it currently lacks: a full-time employee paid to work on behalf of the town's interests, instead of dozens of volunteers trying to do it in their spare time.

"You can't have 20 volunteers all working at a goal," Lilley said.

Not all Main Street businesses are ECBA members, Hall said. He estimates 50 to 60 of the approximately 100 eligible businesses and professional offices belong to the group, a number the partnership hopes will increase as town organizations coalesce and Ellicott City receives additional recognition.

The partnership is soliciting contributions from individuals and corporations as well as seeking county money, and hopes to launch a search to fill the town manager position at the beginning of 2014, Hall said. A job description and salary have not yet been finalized.

With a county commitment of $3 million in capital improvement funds in hand for the fiscal year that began July 1, the partnership isn't trying "to look a gift horse in the mouth," Hall said.

Lilley said improvements planned for the city include such infrastructure projects as repairing the retaining wall in the Lot E parking lot behind Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. and, simultaneously, creating a walkway into town from the courthouse; repairing the flood- and earthquake-damaged retaining wall at St. Paul Roman Catholic Church; and establishing more gardens to reduce stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces.

But he believes the county should also play an integral role in the new partnership, too.

"It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but it's generally expected that local government will commit one-third of the funding," he said. Insurance, advertising, office space and office equipment are some of the expenses that must be covered.

Steve Lafferty, special projects director for the county Department of Planning and Zoning, said the idea to hire a town manager "has been kicking around for at least a couple of years."

"We felt we needed to do this with [the now-defunct Ellicott City Restoration Foundation] and the business association operating on parallel tracks," said Lafferty, who has also been devoting time to U.S. 1 revitalization efforts in southeastern Howard County.

"While those individuals have all been doing a lot of good stuff for the town, we needed a way to settle on a course of action" and prevent volunteer burnout, he said. "Anytime an organization can have a full-time person focusing on the betterment of the community there will be advantages."

Emphasis will be placed on historic preservation, aesthetics, promotions, economic vitality, and recruiting and retaining volunteers, Lafferty said.

The new hire will also spend time talking with people to help them reach a consensus on priorities "so they're comfortable with the way funds are spent."

A series of discussions is tentatively planned for September to gather input on this concept from residents, business owners and other merchants, Lafferty said.

"The county is very interested in seeing this succeed," he said. He noted that he is joined on the 17-member partnership board by a representative of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Lilley said the partnership has also been communicating with Main Street Maryland, a coalition of 26 main street districts organized by the state's Department of Housing and Community Development. That program strengthens the economic potential of traditional main streets by helping them increase private-sector small business investment, and improve the appearance and image of their core business districts.

Amy Seitz, state coordinator of Main Street Maryland, said quality of life, character of a city or town and design of the built environment are key factors in applicants' success in receiving an MSM designation, which is a competitive process.

While applications are generated by local government, having a group of committed individuals who can take the reins after designation is granted is a mandatory component.

"Downtown areas don't deteriorate overnight or come back overnight," Seitz said. "We need to be sure that our Main Streets have the right care and feeding."

She likened earning a Main Street Maryland designation to being branded as a place of interest for tourists who can make their way from one side of the state to the other in a day, allowing for travel-friendly day trips.

Though not all candidates are accepted on their first try — Sykesville first applied in 2008 but wasn't successful until 2012, for instance — Seitz said she'd "be very surprised if Ellicott City were turned down," after it submits an application.

"It is the middle of a wagon wheel whose spokes lead to other communities" in the county, she said.

The combination of the new partnership, hiring a town manager, and anticipated receipt of a Main Street Maryland designation will give the historic town a new sheen, Lilley said.

"It's truly a way to revitalize the town," he said. "Ellicott City is certainly not dying on the vine, but this will give it a boost."

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