ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — 10 buildings on lower Main St. were once slated to be demolished right around this time, but new leadership in the county signaled a change in the flood mitigation plan for Ellicott City.
"We don’t what it is for us yet. We look forward to working with Dr. Ball's administration," Phoenix Emporium owner Mark Hemmis said.
Today, Hemmis, and lots of other Ellicott City business owners and stakeholders heard from newly-elected County Executive Calvin Ball, as he rolled out "Safe and Sound" in front of a packed room at Tersiguel's Restaurant.
"Its [Ellicott City's] safety and security are critical to our county's future," Ball said.
It comes 7 months after Ellicott City's second major flood in two years. Ball says the plan is built around the need for public safety, supporting business and property owners, preparing the county for a changing climate, and creating a more inclusive, community driven process for decisions regarding Ellicott City's future.
Ball's plan is multi-phase, and he says the first phase is already underway. It includes bolstering the alert system to give businesses, residents and visitors more warning and direction during severe weather.
"Improvements to audio and visual warning systems and broadening of real-time information systems to allow for more targeted messaging," Ball said.
Howard County developer and co-owner of several Main Street buildings, Don Reuwer, says this could also help business.
"Every time it trains now. If it rains on a Saturday, these guys do no business whatsoever and hopefully the early warning system will give people the confidence to know the difference between a drizzly Saturday and a storm that’s gonna have some impact on the town," Reuwer said.
As part of the plan, Ball also wants nearby waterways cleared much more often.
"Within 3 business days of any severe weather event, the county will begin to inspect the 9 waterways that lead into Ellicott City," Ball said.
But Ball says the most critical and time-sensitive public safety issue is the stability of the buildings That's why he is continuing the county's work to buy 10 buildings on lower Main St. Those once slated to for demolition may be spared. Ball is hoping to find another way forward, tasking the Department of Public Works to explore a flood mitigation option that does not require a full scale demolition.
"To retain as much of old Ellicott City's charm and history as possible, while balancing that important need for public safety," Ball said.
Reuwer, who co-owns Tea on the Tiber, and is part of a group that owns Caplan's, both slated for acquisition, hopes the facades can be saved, offering an alternative to look into.
"We think that the parts of the buildings that runs over the river needs to be removed. Caplan's is a good example. There's 28 feet of the building on Main that doesn’t go over the river," Reuwer said.
"I love Ellicott City. I’ve been here 17 years. The Phoenix has been here for 40. We want to stay on Main Steet but we want to be safe as well," Hemmis said.
The next phase is deciding the fate of the buildings. Ball has asked for a second structural engineer survey and public input before making an announcement early in 2019.
See a breakdown of the first phase below:
Ensuring Public Safety:
Building Acquisition: The plan says that some lower Main Street buildings need to be assessed by a structural engineer to make sure they are safe, but the county first needs to acquire these businesses to get the ball rolling.
Emergency Public Alert System: While the county already has alert capabilities, Ball's plan is to develop a comprehensive plan to improve the county's current alert system. This system would include new technology and elements to help everyone during extreme weather situations, like the flash flooding Ellicott City has seen in the past. Specific areas of improvement include audio and visual warnings, and a broadening of real-time information systems that would allow more targeted messaging during emergencies.
Clearing the Waterways: This aspect of the plan highlights keeping the waterways in and around Ellicott City clear of debris. By doing this, Ball says it would ensure the safety of residents, business owners, and visitors during more severe weather events. Currently, waterways are inspected on a semi-annual basis, but Ball says more can and will be done. He plans on developing a program which would increase the frequency of inspection and debris removal along nine waterways that usually have a lot of debris during significant weather events. The new program would require an inspection of the nine waterways within three business days of any severe weather event, and that the debris accumulated by the stom should be removed within 14 business days. Lastly, under this part of the plan residents will be able to track inspections and see pictures of debris that was removed on a public dashboard that will be launching in early 2019.
Supporting Business and Property Owners:
Flood Mitigation Assistance Pilot Program: This matching grant program will provide funding for flood mitigation projects in certain areas. The program includes $150,000 in funding, a max of $5,000 per project, but the projects must be on structures in flood zones A, AE, of Shaded X. The program will be re-evaluated after a year to see if it can be expanded.
Working with State Partners: During the Maryland General Assembly, Ball says he hopes to get funding to recapitalize Maryland's Comprehensive Flood Management Grant Program to make sure all flood mitigation projects affected by flooding are covered. He also wants to get legislation that would make flood mitigation projects an eligible use of funds from the state's Bay Restoration Fund Fee. Lastly, he wants to explore legislation to allow for greater access to private property during times of emergency to better clear the county's waterways.
Supporting Main Street Businesses: Ball has directed the county's Economic Development Authority to support one full-time staffer to act as an ombudsman for Main Street businesses. This staffer would be available to help promote tourism and help owners with anything they need businesswise.
Keeping Ellicott City's Historic Charm:
Creative Options for Lower Main Street: Ball says he wants to make sure that with all of the changes going into Old Ellicott City, it still keeps its charm that attract so many. He says he has directed the Department of Public Works to explore a flood mitigation option that does not require a full scale demolition. He says it is important to not use a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is necessary.
Developing an Inclusive, Community-Driven Process:
Creation of a Community Development Corporation (CDC) Exploration Committee: Ball says that while things are changing in Ellicott City, it is important that the area has a holistic, community driven advocate for the district that incorporates all of the diverse stakeholders. He proposed to launch a Ellicott City CDC Exploration Committee which would represent a diverse group of stakeholders that will examine what a CDC would look like for Ellicott City, what their role would be, and how they would interact with other existing organizations that are already doing work for the city.