Rock Hall of­fi­cials work­ing to re­vi­tal­ize town

Cecil Whig - - REGIONAL - By DO­RIAN MITCHELL

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

ROCK HALL

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.”

Town Re­sponse

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.

Next Steps

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.

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

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