Rock Hall officials working to revitalize town
Special from the Kent County News
— For a while now, Rock Hall residents and visitors have seen empty storefronts and buildings as they make their way down Main Street or on the way to the waterfront. However, the town is working to remedy that.
This year, the Rock Hall Mayor and Council launched a revitalization campaign primarily aimed at restoring Main Street to its former glory. It was kickstarted when the town received a Sustainable Community designation from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
“We noticed that some of our businesses are for sale and we saw that buildings are vacant,” Mayor Brian Jones said. “Main Street is a vital part of Rock Hall because it’s the first thing you see as you come to town.”
The campaign is spearheaded by Jones and town grant writer Meg Parry, who is now the Main Street manager. Part of it is technical and comes from the town’s enrollment in the DHCD’s Main Street Maryland affiliate program, which is intended for smaller municipalities.
“You get a lot of the same benefits as the main program,” Parry said. “We’re the first community to be designated an affiliate town.”
Those benefits include DHCD advisory staff who will make recommendations on how best to improve Main Street, technical training for Parry and information on other programs Rock Hall can enter.
The town also has applied for a Community Legacy grant. Offered through the DHCD, it is intended to provide funding to certain projects that promote overall growth in areas such as business retention and attraction, and increasing home ownership.
Rock Hall’s application has requested up to $500,000 to be divvied up among various project categories.
“Since a lot of our visitors and boaters like to visit it, we need Main Street to be active, vibrant and a destination to shop and explore,” Jones said.
The other part of the revitalization campaign is community involvement. This spring, the town council and Parry hosted several roundtable discussions intended for Main Street merchants but branched out to involve residents.
“I was incredibly impressed with the attendance levels. They were higher than I expected,” said Cindy Genther, broker for Rock Hall Properties Real Estate. “It was good to look at what kind of changes are needed for a prosperous future.”
The discussions yielded a number of ideas, such as a dedicated tourism program having a higher online presence for various websites and apps, capitalizing on the proximity of Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge nearby and expanding business hours.
“The participants felt involved, and hearing their visions has helped to craft how to proceed with the revitalization progress,” Jones said.
Though the campaign is still in its infancy, one major result has been the creation of the Festive Fridays on Main Street program, which holds various events on Friday nights.
“We’ve gotten very good feedback about the program,” Parry
said. “It’s a balance between trying to get the community involved and attracting visitors, as well.”
The council has placed $5,700 in the town budget for revitalization efforts, while the Festive Fridays program draws from a $1,000 line item.
“Some of our bigger events on Festive Fridays, like Christmas in July and the carnival night, are sponsored by businesses and organizations,” Jones said.
Another component of the revitalization campaign involves improving Rock Hall’s waterfront area, which includes Rock Hall Harbor, the public beach and Swan Creek.
The town received a $50,000 grant through the Department of Natural Resources to create a master plan for the waterfront area.
As a requirement of the grant, a working waterfront enhancement committee comprising residents and officials met to discuss recommendations for the plan.
“That’s in the works now,” Parry said. “Everyone benefits from these efforts.”
Though there have been multiple meetings regarding revitalization efforts, confusion about what is being done remains, especially regarding Main Street.
Council members have asked for clarification about the campaign or requested Jones to better communicate about its progress.
“Some people feel they are not in the loop, but grants are timely,” Parry said. “It’s always challenging. ... We’re trying to take advantage of opportunities and sometimes; the deadline is very tight.”
The campaign is mostly wellreceived by community members. In an email, Greater Rock Hall Business Association President Suzanne Einstein wrote, “The vitality of the downtown area and the waterfront are both crucial to the overall health of our economy and to our lifestyle.”
“Both of the revitalization projects (Main Street and Waterfront) that the town has put forth seem to be aimed at doing just that,” she wrote.
Jeff Carroll, owner of Bayside Foods, said the Festive Fridays program is a good effort and some of its events, like a classic cars night, seem to pull in a strong crowd.
“The leadership by the mayor and council has been great. They see that we need to make some changes,” Genther said. “I’m pretty pleased with their open-minded philosophy on what we need to do to make Rock Hall a better place for residents, visitors and tourists.”
However, there also is criticism of the campaign. Carroll said the Festive Fridays program has caused parking on Main Street to become tight, with overflow occurring at the Rock Hall Village lot and other places.
“Quite frankly, it chokes my business and other businesses around the street,” he said. “Some of them are OK, but the Christmas in July one was terrible.”
Carroll said another downside is that the events rely on the weather to be successful and have a high attendance rate.
“It’s a good try. It looks like they’re trying to copy Chestertown and what they do,” he said, referring to the town’s First Fridays. “But there aren’t enough locals to sustain it, and boaters or visitors won’t come out if the weather is bad.”
Chris Lingerman, co-owner of Chester River Seafood Co., said while revitalizing Main Street is important, other areas of Rock Hall also could use improvement
He said the events are “neat,” but Rock Hall suffers from being a dead-end town.
Resident Grenville Whitman said the campaign’s focal point should be improving the waterfront. He called it the “town’s economic heart.”
“People don’t come to Rock Hall for Main Street. People come to Rock Hall for the water,” he said. “Main Street should be a second priority.”
Like Carroll, Whitman said parking for events is a concern. Another is the lack of communication about the campaign and about the cost of events like the Christmas in July celebration.
“All members of the council need to be informed and included in advance of decisions,” he wrote in an email. “Spending needs to be reported in the annual budget.”
Jones and Parry have stated their willingness to explain the various aspects of the revitalization campaign multiple times, during town council meetings or in separate interviews.
“In order for these initiatives to work, however, it will require the participation and support of our local community,” Einstein wrote.
Jones said the next step for the revitalization campaign is to wait and see if the Community Legacy grant application is approved. He said after approval, the campaign can more forward with different projects.
“We probably won’t receive funding for every project we’ve applied for, but we’ll continue promoting Main Street events and wait,” Jones said.
Parry called revitalizing Main Street a “ripple effect,” meaning improvement efforts for other areas will follow after.
Genther said there are several active businesses on Main Street and new additions, like an art gallery. She said there are several “viable options” regarding businesses interested in being in Rock Hall.
However, both she and Carroll agree more bars and restaurants would increase the amount of visitors and tourists to the town. Four Sirens currently is the only restaurant on Main Street.
“Revitalization needs to happen all throughout the town,” Carroll said. “There’s only so many people in Rock Hall, which makes it hard to sustain businesses like mine.”
Genther said one of the major ideas from the past roundtable discussions was how more businesses should remain open year-round and have expanded hours, despite Rock Hall’s seasonal nature.
“The Hickory Stick and Java Rock are open like that,” she said. “While they don’t do great business in January, at lease there is something for visitors to do. And we do get visitors here in January.”
Lingerman said a recreation center in Rock Hall would entertain tourists and give the local youth a place to have fun.
“It’ll cost a lot of money and a lot of manpower to do it,” he said. “But if you don’t give these kids something to do, they’ll just get in trouble.”
For improving the town’s waterfront, Whitman said more restaurants, enhancing and developing the beach, and giving boaters the ability to dock at the harbor would be a good start.
He said a seasonal harbormaster position, paid or volunteer, could serve to greet boaters, provide information about the town, deal with any issues that may arise and be a liaison with waterfront businesses.
Whitman said though events like Fallfest and Fourth of July help promote the waterfront, he would like to see some sort of an “agriculture meets the sea” heritage festival take place.
“I thought a lot about the harbor because it is particularly important,” he said.
As part of the revitalization campaign, the working waterfront enhancement committee will hold workshops on Oct. 27 and 28, to further advance the master plan.
The Town of Rock Hall has launched a revitalization campaign for Main Street, which has a number of empty storefronts and buildings. The efforts were kickstarted when the town received a Sustainable Community designation from the Department of Housing and Community Development.