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Merchants Dream of a Better Downtown Ellicott City

County officials are putting the spotlight on downtown; merchants react.

 

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's is a couple of weeks away, so Patch asked a few locals a merchants what they hoped the county would take into consideration in order to further boost tourism in town.

Coping with limited parking space, coordinating business events and beautification are some of the issues that several downtown regulars mentioned.

"What I see for the future is that it will slowly evolve–as it has done for so many years–and it will just get better and better," said Joan Malpas, who has been co-owner of for 23 years.

Malpas says she doesn't think Ulman has a solution to the parking situation because, as she sees it, it is a problem that will always exist with Ellicott City's limited capacity along the hillside and down to the Patapsco River.

"Parking is always going to be a problem," Malpas said.

She said she also would like to see county leaders spending more time talking to business owners and fostering a better line of communication between Main Street and Howard County.

Steven Lafferty, director of special projects for the county, says local leaders and planners have been meeting with business owners for nearly two years on the upcoming project.

"I talk to merchants every time I'm on Main Street," Lafferty said. "I would say the downtown part of Ellicott City has gotten as much if not more attention than any other part of the county, aside from downtown Columbia."

Nonetheless, Malpas said she is optimistic about the town's ability to keep bringing in new people, and charming those people back to town every year.

She said people discover downtown Ellicott City as they do many other destinations in the area, but people come back through cooperative efforts like Howard County Tourism's music-filled "First Fridays" and the farmer's market on "Second Sundays" or the discounts on "Third Thursdays."

"There's something about this town that entrances," says Malpas. "People love it."

Susan Whary, the , said she thinks downtown will thrive, with or without the help of Ulman's plan.

"There's a lot of great shops here. You don't see a lot of doors closing," Whary said.

Ed Lilley, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, said he hopes the county can help downtown become part of the Maryland Main Streets program. No town in Howard County is currently included in the 24 main streets, which get access to several state resources to keep tourism growing.

Lilley says the biggest step toward qualifying would be to create a position of town manager, which is required for Maryland Main Streets eligibility.

"We need a town manager and, of course, with that, you need money to pay a town manager," Lilley said. "We've been talking to the county about whether it would be possible for them to put some money in, and obviously we need to come up with money of our own."

Lilley, who has been involved in Ulman's plan, says the county wants to put sensors in the public parking spaces throughout downtown, which will allow tourists to see where they can park through a free smart phone application.

Lilley thinks the traffic flow data collected through this project could shed some light on solving the perpetual parking problems.

"I think it's a really good thing. It will tell people what spaces are available, whether they're paid or free," says Lilley. "It will give a true picture to the county of how people park in Ellicott City."

Charlene Randolph, owner of The Clayground, says she has been busy since moving from the Savage Mill last fall. She says the parking situation for her store is fine, but she thinks people aren't aware of the businesses west of Court Avenue.

"I just want people to know about the shops further up on Main Street. A lot of people don't know our businesses are here," she said.

Kimberly Kepnes, local realtor and co-owner of the , says she admires Ulman's efforts and the fact that getting the ball rolling on a project with residents and so many independent business owners is a task in itself.

"I think [Ulman] has done a wonderful job trying to meet the needs of residents and business owners in town," Kepnes said. "As a business owner myself, I'm fully aware of how long it takes, from the moment an idea is created, to put that plan in action."

What would Kepnes do if approval for any project was in her hands? Beautification.

"The beauty brings the people, always," she said. "And the architecture alone is a very wide appeal, so anything we can do to enchance it with beautification, I'm all in."

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