Enjoying Cecil County’s Revitalized Downtowns This Holiday Season

As Cecil County gets ready for Christmas on this weekend before the big holiday we’ve been to Port Deposit, North East, and Chesapeake City.  The hustle and bustle we found in each of these places was exciting to see for it reminded us of a time decades ago when downtown Elkton was packed with holiday shoppers from throughout the county. Before the 1970s, customers went to downtown merchants such as J. J. Newberry, Stanley’s Newsstand, Elkton Supply, Jacob Singman Men’s Store, Faez Apparel, McMillman’s Sporting Goods, Sears and dozens of others for just the right gift for people on their list.  But all that changed in the era of shopping malls and Internet retailing, although we see how successful some towns have been with revitalizing the old business districts in the 21st century.

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Joe's Grog House Sign in Port Deposit

Friday evening we stopped in Port Deposit and found a lively scene at Joe’s Grog House.  This new restaurant, which opened about two weeks ago, specializes in Southwestern and Cajun food.  A nice crowd filled the tables and bar on the cold December evening. The eatery was first class all the way around for we enjoyed fine food, excellent drinks, and outstanding service.  We’ll become regulars at this new place which has reasonable prices.  By-the-way, a two weeks earlier we stopped into Back Fin Blues and to our great delight found an excellent five star restaurant for fine dining in the heart of the historic town, which we’ve also added to our list.  Having some selection of quality restaurants is essential for revitalization of the central business districts and Port Deposit is excelling in that area.  It now has four fine restaurants, along with a selection of pubs and semi-fast food places. 

Saturday we shopped in North East and Chesapeake City.  There are dozens of stores in these two communities providing a full selection of quality gifts for special ones on your list.  While we strolled around, Christmas music floated through the air, holiday lights glowed attractively, and people filled the streets going from shop to shop.  In North East Santa was busy greeting children in his house on Main Street, while in Chesapeake City the historic homes dressed for the holidays added to the atmopshere.  With such ambiance in these old downtowns and specialty shops filled with unique items, it was the perfect setting for creating a holiday mood as people made cash registers ring.  We also enjoyed the opportunity to stroll and talk with people as we passed a relaxing few hours, enjoying a Saturday afternoon on the day before the official start of winter. 

Anyone familiar with the recent past in these towns know that they have undergone a full evolution, which ranged from lively business districts serving local people in the middle of the 20th century to an era of decline as retailing models changed.  But now these three places, drawing on historic, cultural, and locational attributes, have revitalized their business districts, drawing shoppers from a wide area.

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4 responses to “Enjoying Cecil County’s Revitalized Downtowns This Holiday Season

  1. Crazy History Teacher

    Christmas in downtown Elkton!? Ha ha ha! Look, I’ve seen livelier in my hometown of Cambridge, Maryland in Dorchester County and trust me, its dead down there. Literally and figuratively!

    By the way, that Santa in North East didn’t ask you about the hooters girls did he? I heard the last one down there got in a lot of trouble! He was a former student of mine. I guess I taught him well!

  2. Crazy History Teacher:

    I’ve got to disagree with you a little bit. This issue, as well as the methods for revitalizing our old central business districts is something that is important to me. As I drive around the region I take particular notice of how the economic and cultural interventions are going in various places. When I see successes I think about the business strategies they have used to bring the old downtown back to life. When I see places that are still struggling I wonder about that too, as well as the leverage points they might have to bring the core of their communities back to life. I also stay current on the professional literature on the subject in books and publications.

    By-the-way, as I mentioned in the post one important foundation is a quality restaurant, the type that will cause people to drive an hour or so for a fine meal. We have several towns on our list. Another, absolutely critical piece, is historic preservation. The old 19th and early 20th century buildings that create the atmosphere in a downtown are an important part of the strategy. The entire Main Streets program was established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and if you read the Maryland Main Streets material you will see that preservation is a cornerstone element.

    Cambridge is a place that is having success. They too are a Maryland Main Streets community and if you go downtown today, you’ll see success with a number of quality antique shops, a few restaurants, and a cluster of supporting retailers. It’s a place I like to stop by when I’m traveling down the Shore. Also in Reading the Cambridge Banner I also see pieces from the Main Streets program down there, which show the application of innovative solutions. Stop by your old hometown sometime and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find that it is coming back to life

    While Elkton has significant challenges to be resolved, the Mayor and Commissioners and the Elkton Alliance have been working at it since the mid-1990s. The town commissioners are putting significant local resources, energy and focus behind trying to bring their old business district back. Also, Elkton Commissioner Jablonski is the full time director of the Main Streets program and since she also sits on the town board as one of the five elected officials she is able to provide public policy input directly to the governing body. Most other places don’t have that leverage point on the governing board.

    Crazy history teacher, It is very important for communities to have vital, healthy central business districts. The challenge is to get the vision right, design the appropriate business model for your community and then carefully implement a plan. As implementation goes along, appropriate metrics and measures need to be observed so adjustments can be made as necessary. Adjustments will always have to be made.

    I don’t disagree with you that Elkton has a long way to go, but they are trying.

  3. If you want a model for Elkton to follow, just go an hour up the road to West Chester, PA. It too suffered the same fate as Elkton in that the county government left for the “suburbs” and it left behind a desolate town full of historic buildings, but no reason to go there.
    Slowly, they were able to draw in a nice restaurant or two, then an upscale bar or 2 or 3. Then ice cream shops opened as people wanted somewhere to go to walk off dinner…then shops followed as people started filling the town—then outdoor cafes and before you know it, West Chester is a bustling town again! There’s no reason the same couldn’t happen to Elkton, but they need to go out and “recruit” a restaurantuer or two and give him some incentives to go in to a ghost town just the same as the county economic development office would give a large factory or corporation to come to the county. Something to think about…

  4. Michael Rudolf:

    Thanks for providing some insight from your perspective on revitalizing old central business districts. Downtown West Chester thrives with a pleasant energy these days and we’ve noticed the changes that have taken place there as they brought their Main Street back to life. I think the approach you’ve outlined is the model most successful places use. It would appear that one needs to create incentives in distressed districts in order to kick off revitalization.

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