Elkton’s downtown is at a turning point in its history as “many downtown businesses are struggling,” the Cecil Whig editorialized today. “The recession, coupled with the loss of county offices, has diminished an already dwindling customer base.” The owner of the Main Street Bagel shop noted that after almost 200 county workers, along with the hundreds of visitors to their offices, moved to the Delaware State Line, his establishment saw a 30% decline in business. The editorial concluded that people “head to Route 40, Havre de Grace, Newark, and farther afield to eat, see movies or listen to music. While we occasionally do some of those things downtown parking is almost always an issue, the opinion piece concluded.
Someone Noticed appreciates the coverage the Whig is giving to this important public policy matter, as they dig deeply into the subject with quality reporting. But on the assertion that the problem is parking, we’ll disagree. It would be a sign of returning vitality, one that could be resolved with appropriate planning. This idea that visitors downtown had trouble finding a space to squeeze their car into has been bantered about for decades and there was a time some 20 or 30 years ago that it was a issue. Imagine the time not all that long ago when the stores along Main and North streets constituted the retailing center for the county. In those days people headed into this area to shop and dine and there weren’t as many parking lots then.
About 15-years-ago as Elkton’s decline accelerated with the loss of anchors and the town was beginning to create the Alliance, planners said there wasn’t enough space for those autos coming into the county seat. To figure out how to handle this situation, the town commissioned a professional planning study. The first report, which came back, said there wasn’t a parking problem, so they sent it back to be restudied. When it was released the second time, it said agreed with what local officials were saying about vehicle space.
Whatever the reality was at that time, the parking problem in the town center has become less and less of a problem with each passing year. To start with so many historic buildings have been torn down in order to provide paved lots for cars that a stroll up North Street no longer gives one a unique sense of place. Couple all those new parking lots with the continuing erosion of vital anchors in the town center and what you find is that fewer and fewer people make jump into an auto to travel downtown. The county moved 190 workers out of town, not to mention the hundreds of people that visited those offices, in January 2008. There have been other recent losses too. With each loss, whether it was another small retailer or an important institution, the affect was noticeable for anyone walking those streets regularly.
The real challenge is that there are no anchors to make the town center a destination. Quality restaurants would be an example of a commercial operation that could cause people to make the town center a destination, as one of our regular readers has posted on this blog. A demonstration project by the Arts Council and the Historical Society illustrated one very successful venture that drew the right demographic to the heart of the community. We always thought the Alliance would pick up on that demonstration project. Hopefully there are realistic plans to address some of the growing challenges and opportunities for it is important to realistic address the challenges. If the interventions are successful, perhaps parking will someday become a problem.