In late October of last year, the Spy ran a poll asking readers to identify the most pressing issue facing the greater Chestertown community in 2010. Of the six issues listed, ranging from crime to waterfront development, the need to “revitalize” Chestertown rose to the top by a 2-to-1 margin. While hardly scientific, these results confirm what many in Chestertown have known for some time: that something serious needs to be done to get the town’s mojo back.
Since the 2008 market crash, favorite stores and restaurants have disappeared, while other merchants have dipped into life savings to keep their doors open. In other cases, poorly conceived or financed new stores have opened only to close again, leaving storefronts looking abandoned. It has been painful to watch, and equally painful to know that there will be no quick fixes.
The good news, while not comforting for those feeling the sharpest sting of this recession, is that Chestertown has never been better positioned to make good decisions about its future. The poor economy has slowed down building projects along with the unsustainable demand for housing and business development. With these pressures removed, at least for the near term, the community has some unexpected breathing room and with it, the opportunity to make more considered and unique choices for its future.
Other promising signs come from the changing dynamics in our local government, our non-profit organizations and private sectors. In the public sector, the Town of Chestertown has a new town council, which includes the freshly elected Jim Gatto, a professional urban planner from the 1st ward, while the town’s planning commission under Chris Cerino’s thoughtful leadership is well positioned to methodically work through a number of complex growth issues. The same can be found with the Historic District Commission under Robert Tyson.
Equally impressive is Chestertown’s non-profit sector. The reinvigorated Downtown Chestertown Association, coupled with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s local Main Street chapter, Kent County’s Chamber of Commerce, our Historical Society, and Chestertown’s new World Cafe initiative, together provide ample volunteer horsepower and professional support to help guide Chestertown as it moves into the next few decades.
The same is true of the private sector. Washington College, whose new president takes the reins this summer, will bring increased momentum for efforts to integrate with Chestertown’s downtown and waterfront, while the school’s Center for the Enviroment and Society, the Starr Center, Kohl Gallery, O’Neill Literary House and Sophie Kerr programs continue to forge strategic alliances both within the town and in a wider world.
And finally, Chestertown has real estate developers listening and seeking local input before breaking ground on housing and retail projects. While financial compensation is a key motivator,and reasonably so, there is clear evidence of their genuine desire to work with the community on how best to grow.
How the town takes best advantage of these unique circumstances remains an open question, but there is unmistakable evidence that the town can use this opportunity for positive change and long term prosperity while still holding onto its traditional values and quality of life.
The Chestertown Spy intends to play its part by offering a monthly interview series with stakeholders, experts, and other voices in the community called the Chestertown Futures project. The title reflects the fact that the health of Chestertown will depend on many different points of view and visions. Using the multimedia tools of the internet, this project will help enable the community to make the best decisions possible about the town’s next ten years. It is our hope that this series will also encourage a sustained community conversation about that future.
The road ahead for Chestertown is a complex one. It will take civic engagement, professional guidance, and ongoing collaboration with allies such as the town of Rock Hall and the residential communities that surround Kingstown. It will also take constructive engagement with Kent and Queen Anne’s counties and beyond.
Additionally, to be truly productive, it will require that old assumptions and beliefs be challenged in a civil, respectful, dignified, and neighborly way. Chestertown has been able to do so throughout its 300-year history, and the Spy has little doubt it is capable of carrying on this special tradition.