The seat of Cecil County government moved to Elkton in 1787 and for centuries after that the town benefited from being the center of local government. The distinct advantage to having the administrative offices and criminal justice system in the center of town caused the municipality to grow and flourish throughout most of its history. However, late in the 20th century a slow erosion of this particular economic base started as institutions such as the county jail moved to a cornfield at the edge of Elkton and the library moved to the north edge of town. These losses of centers of important economic activity had a noticeable impact on the town center back in the 1980s, but Main Street was still reasonably healthy.
But abruptly, in January 2008, the town that had grown up around the old courthouse on Main Street suffered a severe blow as Cecil County Government moved its administrative offices to the Delaware State Line. That had a significant impact, which was immediately noticed in the restaurants and shops along the old street. The business climate downtown changed dramatically that winter day. In that move nearly 200 workers and all the economic activity they and the visitors to their offices generated disappeared almost overnight. The loss was noticeable.
We were surprised when the Alliance and other stakeholders didn’t put on an all out attempt to try to prevent the relocation to the Mason Dixon Line. But we do recall that the Mayor and Commissioners met with county commissioners to try to stop the economic loss. Certainly anyone involved in trying to return economic vitality downtown had to understand the significant impact
When stakeholders in Chambersburg, PA. recently heard that there were plans under consideration to move the Franklin County Courthouse they reacted. They went on full alert, noting that it would be a detriment to the downtown business district. Concerned parties told officials that if the courthouse were to move even just a few blocks downtown businesses would be critically wounded. The relocation would cripple foot traffic, they said. In public comments business people there mentioned Elkton. They said our county seat saw a significant reduction in customers almost immediately. The Rising Sun Herald also noted the affect on central business district in an article written at the time of the move.
There have been other losses in Elkton over the past couple of years, but none as large as this. The county treasurer had her workers take over the job of recording official documents. The Clerk of the Court’s office in the courthouse on Main Street handled that work before it was moved to the county offices. The economic development and tourism offices moved to the community college. Health care billing offices closed. In the past week or so it has came to light that the Cecil Whig was shutting down all printing operations in Elkton. At one time that operation had employed 124 workers with good paying jobs in the central business area.
The loss of employment opportunities in the central business district needs to be addressed through comprehensive planning and initiatives. Having a strong town center is critical for overall vitality and while some will attempt to take us to task for politely sharing our opinions on this subject, we are strong supporters of the national Main Street program and its four elements. It works but it requires comprehensive planning, careful implementation of the strategic initiatives, realistic monitoring of outcomes, and continuing follow-up, while continually reaching out and building partnerships. We know it works for we see how successful some other communities in our region are such as Cambridge and Havre de Grace. Granted each town has different challenges.
Based in historic preservation, the Main Street approach was developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to save historic commercial architecture and the fabric of American communities’ built environment. The Main Street program is designed to improve all aspects of the downtown or central business district. Building on a downtown’s inherent assets — rich architecture and most of all, a sense of place — the Main Street approach requires a comprehensive approach for success, but must include the community’s cultural resources, since that’s what creates the sense of place.
Now it is too late to do anything about the loss of those 200 county workers, but one has to wonder where the advocacy groups. If we’d been involved with it, we’d at least have started a blog and started professional testifying at every public meeting. We would’ve also tried to reach out to build partnerships of support with others while proposing alternative ideas. That’s the intervention model we successfully used when the majority of the town board wanted to sell historic land to a developer. We suppose there’s no sense going back over this part since what’s done is done in this case and one has to always realistically assess the opportunities and challenges.
Having stated one of problems and initiated some discussion about the opportunity gap that leaves us with lots of questions about what should be done. Elkton has growing, serious challenges downtown that must be addressed with a comprehensive plan. We believe in this instance the mayor and commissioners are doing a fair share by funding the Main Streets program, though there’s a good deal of finger pointing that goes on. What about trying to leverage some of your history? We don’t see much effort in that area. What about the Arts, aren’t there greater opportunities to leverage that since you need great synergy these days to compete and pull people downtown in the early phase? What about recruiting a fine restaurant, the type that will cause people to drive an hour or so? Above all, the challenge as we see it is to work hard to develop partnerships far and wide. That would definitely be something we’d do.
Questions about what’s being done to help the ailing Main Street are growing. Recently the Cecil Whig wrote that Elkton’s revitalization effort could learn something by looking at Pitman, NJ as that this was one place that had won its fight. In 2009, the Whig dug deeply into the struggle in a cluster of articles examining the loss of office worker and retailers, parking problems, and more, but the situation has grown more challenging since that time. One downtown businessperson, Wes Walker, wanting more to be done to help, asked the commissioners if there was a plan to guide the effort.
As time moves along, the options to create successful outcomes become more limited, but one demonstration project initiated by non-town funded groups showed what the arts, history and food can do to draw a crowd. We always thought the mayor and commissioners and those officially charged with developing and implementing plans might have seen the value proposition that one-time initiative created and try to build on it. But there was no interest in follow-up . Surely some opportunities, remain whether it is that one or others. But back to Wes Walker’s question, if they don’t have a plan they need to get some strategies down on paper and reach to build a larger base of support. Wes had asked about getting more people involved. While officials seemed perplexed by that question, the owner of a local Café gave the officials some practical ideas.