Ellicott City’s economic future is intrinsically tied to its past. With so much riding on the authenticity and heritage of this community, it was with profound concern that Preservation Maryland learned of Howard County’s rushed plan to address flooding by demolishing large portions of the historic Main Street. By their own admission, this latest proposal would likely only decrease the height of floodwaters during major events within the target zone by two feet — from a range of 6 to 8 feet to one of 4 to 6 feet — a negligible reduction in contrast to the cost of demolishing a nationally significant historic resource and valuable economic asset.
It’s long been noted that historic places have power because they’re real — they’re authentic. Ellicott City is an example of a place that exudes authenticity. It is real and unadulterated. It has been traipsed over by Civil War soldiers, saturated by muddy floodwaters and stained with the sooty coal smoke of locomotives. The result is a place that beckons visitors, because it is unlike any other area. Here, the sameness of the interstate is replaced by the uniqueness of granite outcroppings and stone buildings built to last.
In turn, that authenticity fuels a powerful heritage tourism industry that employs hundreds and generates millions in revenue for state and local coffers. It’s a story repeated across the nation — communities converting heritage into economic prosperity — and it all hinges on authenticity. According to one study conducted by the University of Florida's Center for Tourism Research and Development, more than 95 percent of tourists felt it was “somewhat” to “very” important to experience authentic elements on a trip. Studies also bear out that these are the types of visitors communities should be working to attract, considering that the U.S. Travel Association found that heritage tourists typically stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more than any other type of tourist. Heritage tourism pays, and it pays more than any other type of tourism.
Given this reality, the preservation and broader smart-growth planning community is confounded by the latest plan considering that previous, well-conceived studies — including the McCormick & Taylor 2016 Hydrology/Hydraulic study paid for by Howard County — identified scientifically proven strategies to significantly mitigate and reduce flood impacts in the town without demolishing a single structure. How and why the 2016 study has been disregarded in favor of the costly new “demolition plan” is a matter that the public deserves to understand.
With so much riding on this decision, advocates for good and transparent government may also reasonably question the lack of substantive public input on this latest plan and the purported “done deal” nature of the proposal. A decision of this magnitude does not only impact current residents and visitors to Ellicott City; it will impact our collective past and future. Howard County residents and the citizens of Maryland — who will both be on the hook to pay for this effort — deserve a logical, clearly-defined decision-making process with the involvement of all parties, not just a politically connected few.
Preservation Maryland recognizes the absolute necessity of making Ellicott City a safe place to visit and live. We are not opposed to all demolition or the public acquisition of flood-prone properties, but we believe there are better alternatives than are being presented, some of which were identified by the county’s own consultants just two short years ago. We have also joined the discussion in publishing a brief white-paper report which provides viable alternatives to demolition and case studies of similar efforts around the nation. Demolition, as proposed, is clearly not the only option.
Sir Winston Churchill, who was also a celebrated historian and architectural enthusiast, once opined that, “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.” While the challenge confronting us is unquestionably great, we should remember Churchill’s axiom and not allow the thoughtless act of a single day — or a rushed plan — to destroy a place as unique as Ellicott City.
Nicholas Redding is executive director of Preservation Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @preservationmd.