Daily Record Says Elkton is Maryland’s Next Hot Spot

The article below is from the Daily Record (Baltimore) on August 26, 2006.  Visitors to the site may find it of interest so we’ve clipped it here:
Elkton: Md.’s next hot spot?
Author: Jen Degregorio

Article Text: 

When Susan Butler fantasized about opening her own business, the small town of Elkton did not exactly spring to mind as the place where she would launch such a risky venture. 

For a while, Butler dreamed of setting up shop in Cape Cod, Mass., the tourist-driven beach town where she had lived for 10 years. But reality soon settled in: New England’s real estate was far too expensive. 

Then, on a visit last year to her brother’s home in Elkton, inspiration struck. Butler saw potential in the sleepy town of 15,000 tucked into Maryland’s northeastern corner. A building for sale at the intersection of Main and North streets downtown sealed the deal. 

“It was right in the center of town, and a lot of businesses were opening up,” she said. 

So she bought the building last fall for $238,000. Less than a year later, Butler opened its doors for Relax, a shop specializing in stress relief. Her store features massages and sauna treatments, an oxygen bar as well as products ranging from handmade jewelry to natural body ointments. 

“It was affordable for me to come here and open a business,” she remarked. “It seemed like a good idea.” 

Butler is not the only one who has picked up on the good idea, according to Mary Jo Jablonski, manager for Elkton Alliance Inc., the town’s chamber of commerce. 

A new crop of businesses has recently sprouted in Elkton. Just three years ago, Main Street suffered from more than 30 storefront vacancies. 

“Now those are all full,” Jablonski said. 

In 2003, Elkton obtained official recognition from the Maryland Main Streets program. Just last year, the state designated the town as an official arts and entertainment district, a title that grants special tax benefits meant to encourage the arts. 

“In Elkton, we used to be like a hick town,’ I hate to say,” explained Jablonski. “That’s changed.” 

New shops such as Butler’s Relax as well as chic new art galleries and jewelry stores can be spotted throughout downtown. But Elkton’s visitors can still get a taste of the town’s old-school roots, perhaps by grabbing a $2 breakfast at the Lyon’s Pharmacy food counter. 

“The downtown has really blossomed recently,” Jablonski said. 

Now thousands of military jobs are slated to transfer to Aberdeen Proving Ground, just 20 miles west of Elkton in Harford County. The influx promises to bring even more residents and development to Elkton than anyone could have hoped for. 

“We do have space for the growth,” Jablonski declared. “We’re coming back to life.” 

Accommodating growth 

In counties across Maryland, political wars are being waged over how to accommodate growth. Battle cries can be heard from citizens against rezoning farmland or annexing outlying property to clear the path for development. 

In Dorchester County, a sprawling resort planned near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge has drawn the ire of environmentalists, stirring controversy during this year’s General Assembly session. 

Harford County residents are now protesting Aberdeen’s annexation of more than 500 acres meant to make room for the homes of thousands of residents whose jobs are being relocated to nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground from military bases elsewhere. 

But in Elkton, hundreds of undeveloped acres are already zoned for residential and commercial use. Town planners are just waiting for developers to build them up. 

“Elkton is in an enviable position,” said Anthony DiGiacomo, principal planner for Cecil County, of which Elkton is the county seat. “We are the bottleneck of the northeast corridor.” 

Located at the northeastern tip of Maryland, Cecil County borders Pennsylvania, Delaware and Harford County. 

“The aggregate population of those [surrounding] counties outnumbers Cecil County by a ratio of 20-to-1,” noted DiGiacomo. 

Cecil has a population of about 100,000, DiGiacomo said. 

By virtue of osmosis, Cecil’s population would have grown even if the federal military Base Realignment and Closure Commission had not decided last year to transfer so many jobs toMaryland. As land becomes more crowded in Delaware and Pennsylvania, folks will naturally filter into Elkton and the surrounding area to find cheaper homes, explained DiGiacomo. 

But the jobs slated for Aberdeen Proving Ground turn up the heat on Cecil. The county sits between Aberdeen and Fort Monmouth, N.J., the military base from which Maryland will receive most of its new workers. 

That means Elkton is closer than Harford County to the old friends and family those workers left behind in New Jersey. 

“People may decide to split the difference between the two when they move,” said Jeanne Minner, Elkton’s director of planning. 

Harford County planners, however, see Aberdeen as the obvious choice for the Fort Monmouth crowd. But critics question whether Harford can handle so much growth. 

For example, Aberdeen’s well-based water supply is already overtaxed. City officials are discussing the rebuilding of an old desalinization plant that could purge brackish Chesapeake Bay waters as a new drinking water source. But such a project and its ongoing maintenance would be very expensive. 

“That’s going to be the limiting factor for development … water and sewer,” Minner said. 

Elkton, however, is secure in its water supply. The town recently signed a deal with a private landowner to create new wells on his property, and it forged a separate agreement with a private water company, Minner added. 

The town is also building a new sewage treatment plant that would double the town’s capacity to treat wastewater by 2008. 

“We’re trying not to put all our eggs in one basket,” Minner remarked. 

While Cecil County’s Port Deposit and Perryville are closer to Aberdeen Proving Ground thanElkton, DiGiacomo thinks Elkton stands the best chance to absorb the pending flood of new residents. 

County planners are attempting to get MARC train service extended into Elkton as well as a service extension from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, which would connect Elkton residents to Pennsylvania and beyond. 

“In terms of size and activity, Elkton has what you call critical mass,” DiGiacomo said. 

Already growing 

Even before the federal base realignment, Elkton was growing fast, DiGiacomo noted. 

The town’s population has grown by nearly 30 percent since 2000, from about 11,900 to an estimated 15,000. 

Folks from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have come to Elkton searching for more affordable homes, said Minner. 

The median home price in Cecil County has nearly doubled since 2002 to $251,000, according to July statistics from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a Rockville-based research company. 

A good deal of new development has also come on-line in the last five years. 

Lennar Corp. introduced Patriot’s Glen, an upscale development of 400 homes around a golf course. Homes there are selling for about $500,000 each. 

Walnut Hill, a 400-home community in northwest Elkton, is in the process of building out its final 100 houses. 

The town recently annexed land east of Muddy Lane for Patriot’s Landing, a project of about 100 homes that will likely break ground in the next year, Minner said. 

Union Hospital, located in downtown Elkton, is in the midst of a 30-bed expansion and building a new parking garage. Meanwhile, Elkton High School is undergoing a $30 million renovation to accommodate a growing student population, explained Minner. 

For the last two years, an increasing number of developers have been requesting annexations of land on which to build new housing and commercial projects. Due to previous uncertainty over infrastructure, such as water and sewer services, Elkton planners have had to deny those requests. 

Now that the sewage treatment plant is nearing completion and the town has secured new wells for drinking water, that will likely change. 

“We can expect to see more growth in the next few years now that water and sewer is up and taken care of,” Minner remarked. 

The most significant promise for such change comes from a plan now being floated by developer Bruce Schneider. 

Schneider has revived his long-held intentions to build an eventual 2,500 homes on 650 acres he controls south of Route 40. No formal plans have been submitted yet, said Minner. 

Schneider did not return phone calls for comment. 

Minner does not think it is a coincidence that Schneider, who has been holding the property for years, is just now taking a serious look at development. 

“We are very excited about BRAC,” Minner said. “We are probably in the best position in Cecil County to accommodate the growth.” 


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