At the Chestertown Council meeting Monday, Nov. 19, Mayor Chris Cerino asked Town Manager Ingersoll, Councilwoman Linda Kuiper and town clerk Jen Mulligan to compile a final update of revisions to the farmers market rules. The council has been looking to update the rules since the death of Owen McCoy, the former market manager, early this year.
Kuiper, in her ward report, discussed some of the major changes she and Mulligan have made so far. The rules now say the market’s non-profit area is open to local community organizations, rather than non-profits as the old rules specified. There had been some concern whether 501(C)(3) status would be required, which would have posed a problem for several organizations that have been regular participants.
Also, the rules no longer require that vendors be “non-commercial,” after several people pointed out that most current vendors are for all practical purposes commercial entities.
At Ingersoll’s request, Kuiper said the rules would state that the market would be closed on Saturdays when it was snowing, to avoid the need for the town to shovel snow. If the market were open on snow days, there would be the danger of vendors or patrons being injured after slipping on snow or ice. Ingersoll said the rules would also eliminate the possibility of someone being injured by a car going out of control on the adjacent streets. “That’s not even something we can prevent,” he said.
Vendors from Kent, Queen Anne and Cecil counties would be allowed. Kuiper asked if there was a fine for cars parked in vendors’ spaces on Saturday. Ingersoll and Police Chief Adrian Baker confirmed that there is a fine.
Also, the town would like to spread vendors out toward the High Street side of the park, in part to reduce the pressure on the grass along Park Row, where some vendors set up. Kuiper asked whether the town should require vendors to move to that side of the park if they have an established site elsewhere. Cerino said “the path of least resistance” would be to give new vendors – there are several who are interested in taking part – sites along the High Street side. He said the town had widened the sidewalk on that side specifically in order to allow vendors there.
The council heard from a number of farmers market and artisans’ market vendors at the end of the summer when it first discussed changing the rules. Cerino said the town had received seven single-spaced pages of email comments on the proposed changes, and that it would make an effort to incorporate many of them. “It’s not going to happen unanimously; we’re going to make some people upset,” Cerino said. But he said it was time to get the new rules in place. “We’re just going to have to get a backbone and pass something,” he said.
The council will discuss and vote on the proposed changes after suggestions from vendors and other stakeholders have been incorporated in a draft and reviewed by market vendors.
Also at the meeting, Jamie Williams, the Kent County economic development director, gave a report on her department’s activities. She said her plan was to update all the towns in the county twice a year, given that most of the economic activity takes place in the towns.
Williams described several initiatives her department has taken, including a business-to-business initiative on the departmental website, kentcounty.com/business, designed to help local businesses connect with each other and find services or commodities – she gave examples such as CPAs, banks, lawyers, real estate offices, day care centers and doctors — they can use in the immediate area. She said the department is open to suggestions for other listings local businesses – especially new ones – would benefit from. The website also lists incentives available to local businesses, whether from the state, the county, or municipalities, and the tax rates for the county and each of the municipalities. It includes a database of property available to be developed, with data such as availability of water and sewer.
Williams said she was working with the county Information Technology staff to promote the 13 wi-fi hotspots in the county all of which have free wireless internet that is available for students or others who can’t get internet access at home. “It helps level the playing field a little bit more for children who can’t afford it at home,” she said. A map on the county website shows all the locations. Also, the county is distributing stickers to businesses that provide free wi-fi on their premises.
Other ways to promote the county include a brochure on the public schools to be distributed to real estate agencies and two videos to be posted on social media and the county’s website. Also, callers to the county offices will hear promotional messages about the county if they are on hold.
Williams listed a number of new or upgraded businesses in the county, including the new Dixon Valve warehouse and headquarters, expansions at Lamotte Chemical, Creafill Fibers and Gillespie Concrete, plus a number of smaller businesses including several new restaurants. She noted that all of them are using local contractors, which benefits the county economy as a whole. She also addressed several business closings, noting that many of them are the result of national or regional factors rather than anything in the local climate. However, as a downside, she said that a few new businesses are having to delay openings because they’re having trouble finding contractors in the area who aren’t already committed to other projects.
Cerino asked if any businesses have come to the county as a result of the fiber optic project. Williams said that she doesn’t know of any that came for that specific reason, but there have been conversations with several companies that have shown interest in the availability of high-speed internet here. She said the county’s 2017 comprehensive plan identifies the kinds of companies that it hopes to attract with the high-speed internet, including data centers, call centers, graphic design companies, and telemedicine. Also, KRM Development is hoping that the availability of fiber optic internet will help attract businesses to its new business mall on the north end of Chestertown.
Paul Heckles, president of Main Street Chestertown, and Kay MacIntosh, the town’s economic development director, gave an update on the organization’s activities. Heckles began with an outline of the group’s mission and its connection to the national Main Street program. He said his “elevator pitch” when asked to describe the group’s purpose is, “We work to enhance the Chestertown experience.” That includes adding more businesses and activities to the downtown area, creating more inviting streetscapes and making downtown a vibrant residential community.
The group has been active for two years since MacIntosh restarted it, and is focused on supporting the economic vitality of the downtown area. Its four pillars of activity are promotion, economic vitality, design, and organization, each of which has a committee. Chestertown’s is one of 28 Main Street organizations in the state, 13 of which are in smaller towns around the bay. “We’ve stolen shamelessly from these organizations around the bay,” Heckles said. “Everybody’s really like-minded, with the community in mind.” He said that all the groups are after the same grant money, and Chestertown is after its fair share. Before the group became active, Chestertown was “leaving money on the table” by not having anyone to go after the available funding for local revitalization.
Lessons learned include the importance of authenticity, of partnering with other organizations such as the Downtown Chestertown Association and the Kent County Chamber of Commerce. An emphasis on walkability is another key to Main Street programs all over the country. Much of the work is done by volunteers, Heckles said.
MacIntosh gave a summary of the group’s activities, including representing the town at the Maryland Municipal League meeting and national Main Street conferences. She said board members pay their own way to these meetings, which are very valuable both for networking and for learning ways to improve the program.
Main Street’s first year of grant applications produced $53,000 in funding, of which $40,000 from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development was for facade improvements in the downtown area, $10,000 for strategic planning, and $3,385 from Keep Maryland Beautiful for planters and flowers for downtown streets, much of which went to fill a “dead zone” along High Street, particularly on a section of High Street where there is no active retail. She listed some of the buildings that benefited from the facade grant, including Play it Again Sam’s and the building at the corner of Spring and Park Row. The building currently housing Casinelli’s distillery is scheduled for a significant upgrade in months to come.
MacIntosh said that Main Street has gotten $100,000 in grants in its second year of applications. It will be used, in part, to create signage in the downtown area “to indicate where all our assets are.” $50,000 is available for facade improvements. Also, MacIntosh said, she received some funding to hire an assistant manager for the program, which will be a part-time position at first. Main Street also applied for and received community tax credits which will allow it to do more high-powered fundraising. Donors to the program will be allowed to deduct 50% of their donations from their state income tax.
Main Street’s other programs over its first two years include the informational map on the Cross Street side of the Bordley building, a calendar of events distributed at the Visitor Center, a social media presence in the Chestertown Life bulletin board and FaceBook page, working with Washington College to get “college swag” into downtown shops, and its two “high-profile” events, the Dickens Christmas festival and the “cars on High” gathering in summer months. MacIntosh gave a preview of attractions scheduled for the Dickens weekend Dec. 7-9, during which Cerino donned a top hat he will be wearing during the festival. Most of the entertainment is free, she said.
Conversations about bringing a boutique hotel to the downtown area, suggested by many as a way to bring in more visitors, are ongoing, MacIntosh said. Main Street is also exploring ideas including a performance venue for the downtown area, a waterfront walking path, public art at gateways, and burying electric wires in the downtown area.
All photos by Peter Heck.