Government Shutdown Starting to Hit Kent

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The Kent County Department of Social Services at 350 High St., Chestertown

The shutdown of the federal government is into its fourth week as of this writing, with some 800,000 either furloughed or working without pay. Departments and agencies wholly or partially closed include Agriculture, State, Treasury, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice and Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Agency.

Maryland ranks third in the nation – behind Washington D.C. and Arizona – in the percentage of federal employees in its population. While many of those are in the suburbs around Washington, according to the 2015 federal Census there are more than 16,000 in the First Congressional District, which includes the whole Eastern Shore. That is more than in some whole states. There is no easy way to find out how many of those live or work in Kent County, though the number is probably fairly small compared to, for example, Harford or Baltimore counties.

But the federal employees are just the tip of the shutdown iceberg. The shutdown affects state and local governments that depend on federal funding, contractors or vendors who deal with the federal government, and businesses that serve government employees or contractors – such as restaurants, grocery stores, and anyone else whose bottom line is suddenly affected by the fact that 800,000+ people suddenly are short of – or out of — spending cash. And, of course, the families of all the above.

So, how has the shutdown affected Chestertown and Kent County? To get a sense of the answer, the Chestertown Spy asked several local officials what effects they are feeling.

Shelly Neal-Edwards, Director of the Kent County Department of Social Services, is one of those on the firing line of providing assistance to those who are out of work or otherwise in tightened financial circumstances. In particular, her office administers the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) for the Maryland Department of Human Services. The program, known in Maryland as the Food Supplement Program, supplies more than 650,000 Maryland residents with a total of more than $75 million each month to purchase groceries. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the federal agencies closed by the shutdown.

A press release from the Department of Human Services, dated Jan. 11, announced that SNAP benefits will continue to be funded through the month of February.

The press release states, “The [USDA] has directed Maryland and other states to issue February benefits earlier than usual. As a result, FSP recipients will get both their January and February benefits on or before January 20. […]

“As funding for has not been appropriated by the federal government beyond February, it is critical to understand the potential hardship that a prolonged federal shutdown could impose upon those in need. As state leaders continue to call for an end to the federal shutdown, the Maryland Department of Human Services stands ready to assist FSP recipients at this uncertain time.[…]”

Also, a letter was sent to all SNAP recipients in the state, informing them of the February payment and asking them to contact their local DSS office if they need additional help in locating resources available in their communities. The letter provides contact information for the local offices, along with the Department of Human Services’ website, Facebook page, and Twitter address.

Edwards said in an email Jan. 17, “ for the month of December 2018, I can tell you that Kent County DSS served 2,582 SNAP/FSP customers. Between July and December of 2018, our Department received an average of 85 FSP applications per month. We have not seen an increase in the number of FSP recipients that we serve here in Kent County, as the number of SNAP recipients in our county has decreased over the past year.”

Shelley Heller, the County Administrator of Kent County, said the main effect on county government, to date, is the inability to get federal officials’ signatures on invoices to pay local vendors when the funds involved come from a federal grant or loan. While the effect so far has been minor, she said it could become significant if the shutdown goes on a great deal longer. Many of the federal grants go through the state of Maryland, so the federal shutdown won’t have an impact until the state needs to get additional funds from the state, Heller said.

As examples, Heller mentioned funding from the Department of Housing and Community development, which applies to community legacy grants in the towns. Also, rural water and sewer systems depend on rural development funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the federal agencies closed by the shutdown. Also, she said, Delmarva Community Transit, the major public transportation supplier on the Eastern Shore, relies on federal funding for its operation. As of this writing, Delmarva Community Transit had not replied to a query about the impact of the shutdown on its operation.

Bill Ingersoll, Chestertown Town Manager, said the town is not heavily reliant on federal funding for most of its projects. The renovations on the town-owned marina, funded in part by USDA grants, are mostly completed, he said. “We have very little direct contact with the federal government except to send in checks,” he said. However, he said, there could be an impact if the shutdown goes on longer. Still, “It won’t affect Chestertown until it hits the state,” he said. At that point, some projects funded by federal grants may be put on hold until the officials responsible for authorizing payments are able to return to work.

In some cases, local residents receive payments directly from the federal government. This includes farmers, many of whom were expecting to receive money under the US Department of Agriculture’s “market facilitation program.” The program was created to compensate farmers in part for sales lost on account of newly enacted tariffs – notably the Chinese soybean tariff that has effectively closed what was one of the most lucrative markets for Eastern Shore farmers. Other programs included in the farm bill recently passed by Congress aren’t being implemented since the shutdown began on Dec. 21, leaving farmers without access to federal loans and other funds needed to get ready for the next planting season.

Summing up, the shutdown’s effect on the local community is small but real though definitely less at this point than it is likely to be if the shutdown continues much past the end of the month, let alone if it goes past February, when SNAP funding may disappear. There may soon be some difficulties in paying local vendors and problems relating to agriculture loans and programs.  The shutdown is beginning to be felt in Kent County.

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The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” A Zany Spoof! Spy Review by Peter Heck

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Max Hagan, Kathy Jones, and Troy Strootman in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center, Jan. 11 – 20, 2019        – Photo by Jane Jewell

What happens when a small amateur theater group tries to put on a version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It with only seven actors? That’s the premise of Don Nigro’s The Curate Shakespeare, opening Friday, Jan. 11 at the Garfield Center. If you’re one of those who read the play in high school and wondered why it was considered a comedy, this version may be what you’ve been waiting for.

Directed by Earl Lewin, and produced by the Shore Shakespeare Company, The Curate Shakespeare is in many ways a logical follow-up to the company’s production of As You Like It – featuring many of the same cast and crew– this past summer. As Lewin remarks in his director’s notes in the playbill, the producers see the play as “a lampoon of their own production.”

The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

The play came about when a professional acting company commissioned Nigro to write a version of As You Like It that could be performed by seven actors. Nigro, who has written over 400 plays, several inspired in some way by Shakespeare’s works, took the challenge as an opportunity to riff on the original, combining the Bard’s work with his own satiric take. It’s sort of a “Murphy’s Law” version of Shakespeare’s play – whatever can go wrong, does, usually in the funniest possible way. Originally produced in Terre Haute, Indiana by Indiana State University Summerstock in 1976, it has gone on to become a cult classic. Lewin, whose original dramas (most recently Hitched)  have a nice blend of comedy and realism, is an ideal director for this high-spirited spoof of actors and community theater.

The play’s subtitle, “the record of one company’s attempt to perform the play by William Shakespeare,” is a good overview of what happens in the play. We see the actors, led by a rather dotty minister, bumble through a performance, complaining and fighting, blowing lines, mispronouncing characters’ names, and every now and then managing to deliver something like what the Bard intended. There’s considerable fun to be had with the props, the costumes and a lot of the stage business – and with snide comments on the actual play they’re trying to put on. 

The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

In an introductory scene, we learn that the company is about to go onstage before an apparently empty house – one cast member questions whether it’s even worth trying to do the play, while the minister who leads the troupe says there may be someone out there in the dark theater. In addition to not knowing whether there’s anyone watching, they are way short of the number of actors the script calls for – one cast member has died, another hasn’t bothered to show up, another has lost the ability to remember her lines. The minister says they can make do by doubling up on the parts and switching a few roles. Reluctantly, the cast agrees that the show must go on – there may be somebody watching, after all.

The play more or less follows the actual plot of As You Like It, which plot is right there –behind and between all the shenanigans. The original story of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” involves a group of aristocrats caught up in political intrigue and lovers’ triangles, They flee to the forest of Arden, where they mingle with country folk, adopt various disguises, and end up with quarrels mended and lovers re-united. With its aristocrats, young lovers, country bumpkins, a jester, and a cross-dressing heroine, it is in many ways a prototypical Shakespearean comedy. There’s a succinct summary of the play at the back of the playbill, for those who want to follow the action. It’s enjoyable and helpful reading for audience members before the play or during intermission. 

L-R seated: Christine Kinlock, Avra Sullivan, standing: Chris Rogers, Max Hagan, seated: Troy Strootman seated) in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

Chris Rogers, one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare and a regular in Lewin’s original productions, plays the Curate — and “all the old men” in the play. The character’s unshakeable optimism is severely tested by all the major and minor disasters on- and off-stage, and Rogers makes the most of the comic potential of the part. 

Kathy Jones takes the role of Rosalind, who acts as a chorus – setting the scenes, playing and singing the play’s songs, and commenting on the play. It’s a great part, and Jones delivers a winning performance. Rosalind was originally supposed to play the lead character, also named Rosalind, but Rosalind just can’t remember her lines so another actress is brought in at the last minute to take the part.  Most recently seen as Audrey (the carnivorous plant) in Tred Avon’s Little Shop of Horrors, Jones is showing herself to be one of the most versatile performers in the region. She says in her playbill bio that she’s recently retired, giving her even more time for the theater — good news for local theater lovers!

Chris Rogers and Avra Sullivan, co-founders of Shore Shakespeare in 2012. Rogers plays the minister and “all the old men”.  Sullivan plays four characters–Cecilia, Aliena, Phoebe, and Snake. – Photo by Jane Jewell

Avra Sullivan is the co-founder of Shore Shakespeare and was the stage manager of their production of As You Like It. Here she plays Celia, one of the better actors in the amateur troupe, and something of a prima donna. The character’s role is complicated by a rocky backstage romance with one of her fellow actors — which keeps breaking out in their performance.  Fortunately, their on-stage friends and lovers’ spats more or less fit into Shakespeare’s plot.  Sullivan also plays three other characters.  

Christina Kinlock, who took the role of Rosalind in Shore Shakespeare’s As You Like It, plays Audrey – who gets cast as Rosalind in this play! (The confusion of names is part of the fun of this production.) At first, the character panics at having her role changed. Then, realizing she’s gotten one of the star parts, she starts to put on airs. Kinlock does a nice job conveying the range of emotions, both in her nominal role and in the Shakespearean part she plays. 

Troy Strootman, as Amiens, also reprises the character he played in the Shore Shakespeare play, Oliver — a sinister young aristocrat. He also takes on the role of Silvius, a country bumpkin in the comic subplot, with a perfect (and totally un-Shakespearean) hillbilly accent. Like most of the other actors, he’s obviously having fun — and it’s contagious. One of the central points of the play comes in his unsuccessful attempts (in the character of Jacques)  to deliver the play’s most famous speech, “All the world’s a stage.” And, of course, massacres it.

Brian McGunigal is another Shore Shakespeare regular. He played Jacques in Shore Shakespeare’s production of  As You Like It last summer.  This time, he is cast as a clown, a depressed clown. He plays the role in a resigned deadpan, as if his character knows that he has to get through his scenes but has no intention of being funny or energetic or cheerful.  What’s the point? Life is hard.  No friends. Nobody loves him, not even himself.  A subtle and very effective performance, 

Avra Sullivan, Christine Kinlock, Brian McGunigle, and a sliver of Chris Rogers in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

Max Hagan, making his debut with Shore Shakespeare, takes the role of William, who plays the romantic lead in the play. A graduate of Sewanee with a Theater Arts major, he most recently appeared as Leslie in The Hostage at Church Hill Theatre. He does a nice job portraying an earnest young actor who hasn’t quite figured out the nuances of performance.  He keeps on trooping along even though the play is falling apart around him.  Hagan has a good voice and joins troubadour Rosalind in several songs.

Barbi Bedell did her usual stellar work on the costumes for this production — an amusing juxtaposition of realism and deliberately amateurish period costumes for the play within the play. The set, designed by Lewin, is quite clever, with a view of “backstage” and various props and bits of furniture, some obviously–and purposefully-humorous and amateurish. And a special tip of the hat goes to Greg Minahan, who arranged the choreography and wrote original music for the various songs in Shakespeare’s play.  The simple melodies and lovely harmonies of the songs felt right for the Shakespearian era.

Troy Strootman, Kathy Jones, Max Hagan.   The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

All told, this is a fun production of an affectionate — but wickedly pointed — spoof of community theater and its inhabitants, particularly for anyone with a passing familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The Elizabethan language of the play within the play and some of the nuances of the relationships between characters may make the play a bit challenging for younger audiences. It may be a bit sophisticated for the elementary-school set, who may find it boring. But there is also enough slapstick and funny parts to keep most children satisfied.  It will depend on the specific child whether this play is a good introduction to Shakespeare or just another boring evening watching “adult” stuff when they could be playing video games. Older theater-goers should have a grand time — especially if they take a moment to read the synopsis of Shakespeare’s play before the curtain goes up. 

The Curate Shakespeare opens Friday, Jan. 11 and runs through Jan. 20. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $15; call the box office at 410-810-2060 or email boxoffice@garfieldcenter.org for reservations.

Photo Gallery by Jane Jewell with the help of the cast, crew, and costumers of “The Curate Shakespeare”

Max Hagan and Brian McGunigle in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

Kathy Jones as Rosalind, Troubadour, and Greek Chorus – The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

Christine Kinlock and Chris Rogers in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

Kathy Jones and Brian McGunigle in The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

The Curate Shakespeare “As You Like It” at the Garfield Center – Photo by Jane Jewell

 

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Town and County Move to Oppose Morgnec Solar Field

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Mayor Chris Cerino gestures as council members Marty Stetson, and Ellsworth Tolliver, clerk Jen Mulligan, and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll listen during discussion of a proposed solar array on Morgnec Road at the Jan. 7 Chestertown Council meeting

The Chestertown Council, at its Jan. 7 meeting, heard from residents opposed to a proposed commercial solar energy array on the outskirts of town. After discussion, the council voted to sign on as an intervening party in the Maryland Public Service Commission’s hearing on the application by Morgnec Road Solar LLC to erect the solar field on the Clark Farm on Morgnec Road.

Elizabeth Watson and Janet Christensen-Lewis of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, and Frank Rhodes, who owns a furniture business across Morgnec Road from the site under consideration, spoke to the council.

Watson said she was offering herself as a resource to the council for background on the issue of the solar field. She said she first became aware of the site some 10 years ago when the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy was involved in a project to develop the Clark Farm as a mixed-use residential area. That project, which included some solar energy for the homes and businesses, was widely praised for its attention to environmental issues, but it was abandoned when the Great Recession of 2008 made it unrealistic to continue. The site is in a designated growth area for Chestertown, according to the town’s comprehensive plan.

The immediate situation, Watson said, depended on the Kent County Commissioners’ decision on a request by Morgnec Road Solar for a zoning text amendment for the property, which is under county jurisdiction. With two newly-elected commissioners, that decision may not be made before a pre-hearing on the case by the Public Service Commission, scheduled for Jan. 23. If the town enlists as an intervening party in the case, it can request a postponement of the preliminary hearing, allowing the county time to decide on the developer’s request for a text amendment to allow solar fields in residential and commercial districts throughout the county. It would also allow the town, through its attorney, to negotiate conditions with the state. “It’ll give you a say, in the worst case,” Watson said.

“I believe in renewable energy, big-time,” Watson said. “I just believe it’s the wrong place.” The county’s zoning has set aside several areas where commercial solar power generation is permitted, many of them near the Route 301 corridor between Galena and Millington. Watson said the county was one of the first in the nation to look at zoning for solar installations, and it remains “ahead of the game” in providing for it and welcoming it. But there need to be places for people to live and work, and the Clark farm is far better suited for that use, she said, especially considering its location on one of the main entrances to town.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked why the developer was insistent on using this site, when the county zoning has set aside others for the purpose.

Watson said the proximity of an electrical substation and a major loop of power lines was a major factor, allowing the developer to sell their power directly to the grid. She said it’s typical for developers to find a piece of land they think will work, then try to get the zoning changed to accommodate their projects. She noted that the substation would need to be enlarged to handle the new load.

Elizabeth Watson (left) and Janet Christensen-Lewis of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance

The developer has an option for a 35-year lease on the property, said Christensen-Lewis. The lease depends on county approval for the project.

Councilman Marty Stetson said that when the proposal first came before the council, a couple of years ago, he asked how many employees the project would have once it was completed. He said the developer tried to shift the answer to the number who would be employed during construction, but when pressed admitted there might not be even one full-time employee once the array was up. “I just think there’s a better use for the property than what they’re proposing,” he said. “Why don’t they go down to the landfill?”

Mayor Chris Cerino said the council appeared to be in agreement that the project was “not a great idea.” He asked whether the council was willing to incur more legal expense to oppose it if it wasn’t necessary at this stage. He asked if the council could simply refer to its previous letter of opposition.

Watson said the developer has opened a new case, so the town needs to submit a new letter to be listed as an intervening party. It could incorporate the previous letter with an updated cover letter and wait for further developments before taking any more action, she said.

Frank Rhodes

Rhodes said he supports solar energy if it is managed correctly. He handed around a set of images that he had presented to the county’s planning commission, including a map of the proposed installation and simulated before-and-after views of the field as it would appear from the roadside – although he said he wasn’t aware until Watson mentioned it that the panels would be 20 feet high, so his depiction was actually less intrusive-appearing than the actual proposal. He noted other businesses and government installations along the route – including Bramble Construction, Atlantic Tractor, the State Highway Administration and the Kent County Public works building. The KRM business campus adjoins the property at its northwest corner, and there are several homes in the vicinity.

Rhodes said he had asked the planning commission that the proposed solar field be kept a minimum of three miles from any town in the county. He also asked that the developers provide enough money up front to decommission the facility, adjusted if necessary for inflation. In addition, he asked that the principals agree not to sell the facility to any overseas company. Summing up, he said it would be “nice to have something better” on the property. “I don’t like the idea of having this as a gateway to Chestertown. It’s just too close,” he said.

After Rhodes’ presentation, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll summarized the issues, noting that the last time the project was turned down, the developers approached the town to ask about annexation. He read the letter previously sent, which asked the Public Service Commission to postpone action pending the appeal of a Washington County court case challenging the doctrine under which the Public Service Commission can overrule local zoning to preemptively issue a certificate of public necessity for power plants. Kent and Queen Anne’s counties are parties to that case. He said that it would be appropriate for the town to contact its representatives in Congress to address the federal law allowing preemption of local zoning, which he said is being applied wrongly today. He recommended that the council adopt a motion to add itself as an intervening party.

Tolliver said that he was initially reluctant to take a position on the case, but he had studied the issue since the last council meeting and felt that the town should intervene. He so moved, and the motion carried unanimously.

Tuesday night, in her departmental report at the County Commissioners’ meeting, Amy Moredock, county director of planning and zoning listed the Morgnec Road project among several text amendment requests to be heard by the commissioners. She reported that the county planning commission, in its December 2018 meeting, unanimously recommended that the request be denied. The planning commission’s letter to the commissioners cited the following reasons for the unfavorable recommendation:

• The County identified and designated locations suitable for larger utility-scale renewable resource facilities through the Renewable Energy Task Force (RETF) recommendations made in 2011. The RETF reconvened in 2015 to review the existing Ordinance provisions in this regard. At that time, the Planning Commission and County Commissioners found that the standing renewable energy provisions served the needs of the public and remained consistent with the Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan.

• Therefore, the Commission does not find that a public need now exists for the proposed text amendment.

• Further, the County has designed zoning districts in which the proposed use is already permitted.

• Many parcels zoned RR [Rural – Residencial] and CR [Commercial – Residencial]are located within mapped designated growth areas, as well as within Tier 1, 2, and 3 Areas. Therefore, this proposal is inconsistent with municipal growth areas.

• The purposes of the RR and CR Districts are to provide for residential development, as well as commercial uses which support the communities and provide economic development opportunities.

• The amendment has been put forward solely for the interest of the applicant, as it is compatible with the developer’s business model with no economic development potential for the County.

• The proposed amendment deviates from the Comprehensive Plan, as the scale of the proposal is neither consistent with the Comprehensive Plan nor the Intent of the Zoning Districts to which this proposal applies.

The full letter from the County Planning Commission to the Kent County Commissioners and Morgnec Road Solar’s application for the text amendment are available as attachments to the commissioners’ Jan. 8 agenda.

The county commissioners will schedule and advertise a public hearing at which both the applicants and opponents can present their cases before deciding whether to grant the text amendment. In response to a question by the commissioners, Moredock said that the planning commission’s attorney has filed to intervene in the Morgnec Solar case. The Town of Chestertown and the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance were also requesting intervening party status in the case before the Public Service Commission.

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Solar Farm Looking at Site Near Town

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Mayor Chris Cerino listens as Town Manager Bill Ingersoll makes a point

Should there be a large solar energy farm directly outside Chestertown? That question arose at the Dec. 17 council meeting, as Mayor Chris Cerino brought the council a request by the Kent County Commissioners for a letter of opposition to such an installation on a large tract on Morgnec Road.

Cerino said the proposal, by the Morgnec Road Solar group, was previously submitted about two years ago, at which point the commissioners and the council made their opposition known. At that point, the developer dropped the proposal, but it has now resubmitted it.

The Clark farm, as the tract in question is known, lies in Chestertown’s designated growth area, just outside town limits on the north side of Morgnec Road. It was being considered for annexation about 10 years ago, before a group seeking to develop it as a residential community withdrew their proposal in light of the real estate market collapse that accompanied the Great Recession of 2008. Morgnec Road Solar proposes to build an array on about 255 acres.

The county’s objection to developing the tract as a solar facility is on grounds that the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances have designated other areas as suitable for solar energy. Cerino said that the project is also opposed by the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, a group that came together in response to proposals to put large wind turbines on farmland within the county.

Councilman Marty Stetson said the site “makes no sense.” He said there are plenty of other areas in the county that are suitable, and “the sun shines everywhere.”

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked why that particular site was being promoted, in view of the county’s previous opposition and the dictates of the comprehensive plan. He said he would like time to study the issue, which originally came up before his election to the council.

Cerino said the developer claimed that other areas of the county “aren’t as prime” for solar generation.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the location of an electrical substation “across the street” was probably an important factor. He said the council probably doesn’t need to act at once. “We just need to put our names on the list,” he said.

Councilman David Foster asked if the County Commission, which now has two new members, may have changed its mind since the proposal was first submitted.

“I think they feel the same, but we may want to find out” before action, Ingersoll said. Morgnec Solar is asking the county for a zoning text amendment to allow the project, he said. That would have to be approved by the commissioners.

Cerino said there is a possibility that Morgnec Solar would ask the town to annex the Clark farm, which would “put the ball in our court.” The council deferred action until the new members have had a chance to study the issue.

The developer’s application to the Maryland Public Service C0mmission for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the 45-megawatt facility is available online as an attachment to the Kent County Commissioners Dec. 18 agenda.

In his monthly report, Police Chief Adrian Baker said he has made offers of employment to two candidates, to fill vacancies on the force, but as of the council meeting they had not accepted. He said the candidates would need to pass psychological tests and a polygraph session before qualifying to attend the police academy for six months. Upon graduation, they could be certified and begin work.

Baker also said that a suspect in a series of burglaries, about 40 in all, has waived extradition and is to be brought back to Maryland to face charges. A vehicle stolen by the suspect is also to be returned to the county.

The council unanimously approved a resolution to support a tax credit for Zelda’s, a “speakeasy” bar being built on the second floor of the building of Play It Again Sam’s coffee shop by Jeff Maguire, who owns the building. The building is in the town’s Arts and Entertainment District as well as the county’s Enterprise Zone, making it eligible for 10 years’ of tax credits. Ingersoll said the business will create several new jobs as well as bringing business to town.

Stetson asked if the credits apply to the whole building or just the upstairs. Ingersoll said only the upstairs is eligible.

Tolliver asked if other new businesses in town are eligible for the credit. Ingersoll said they would be if they apply, which he said is “something of a process.” He said that Jamie Williams, the county’s economic development director, and Kay MacIntosh, who holds an equivalent position with the town, are helping promote the benefits for new businesses in the Enterprise Zone, which has some 1,200 acres in the county, mostly in and around Chestertown.

Ingersoll reported that the town’s application for $4.5 million in U.S. Department of Transportation BUILD grants was not approved. The town had applied for the grants to repave town streets, many of which are in serious need of the repair. He said that most of the grants available in Maryland had gone to larger projects such as bridges on the western shore. He said it is more difficult for rural areas to get the same benefits as urban areas because of the sparser population. The thanked Dixon Valve and Chesapeake Charities for their help in getting the town’s application in order before the grant deadline.

Council OKs New Rules for Farmers’ Market

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Farmers’ Market vendor Jane Malone reads a suggested rule revision to members of the Chestertown Council.

The Chestertown Council, at its meeting December 17, agreed on new rules for the town’s farmers market after accepting input from vendors and other stakeholders.

Mayor Chris Cerino opened the discussion by noting that the council had been working on the revised rules for several months. An initial draft, presented to the council at the end of the summer, drew vendors to the Sept. 6 council meeting to comment on issues they were unhappy with, and the council agreed to circulate a revised list of rules for the vendors’ input. The responses, Cerino said, ran to seven single-spaced pages, which didn’t all agree with one another. The key suggestions were incorporated in a new version, which was again submitted to vendors for their comments. A number of vendors appeared at the Dec. 17 meeting to make their concerns known.

Cerino quickly summarized the main differences from earlier drafts. There will be no fee increase, and no vendors will be asked to move from their customary spaces. Non-profit groups using the market will not be required to obtain 501 C3 status. And priority for spaces in the market will be given to vendors from Kent County, with Queen Anne’s- and Cecil-based vendors next in line, as space allows. “Nobody’s going to be kicked out,” he said.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll added that vendors will not be required to have liability insurance, although it is strongly recommended. Also, he said, the town will try to meet vendors half-way on whether to open the market in bad weather, such as a hurricane or snowstorm by consulting with them before making a decision. He noted that it’s difficult to know very far in advance just what the weather will be on a given Saturday.

Councilman Marty Stetson asked whether the rules should designate reserved parking for vendors on High Street. He said the town had widened the sidewalk along the street a few years ago with the intention of putting vendors there.

Cerino said that overflow vendors could be moved to High Street if there was “a ton of demand” for market space. He said the market manager should be the initial judge of whether the High Street space would be needed. He thought it would be an issue primarily in the prime season, from April to October.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, whose ward includes the downtown area where the market is held, said she had spoken to representatives of the Chestertown Garden Club, which was studying whether to replace the sod on the Park Row side of the park. She said it might be necessary to move vendors from that area to High Street if the re-sodding project takes place. She said she had asked the Garden Club to put their request in writing and possibly send representatives to a council meeting to discuss their plans.

The grass in the park is in the worst condition in years, Cerino said. The park was re-sodded two years ago, but with heavy foot traffic and shade from the trees, he said it’s hard to get grass to grow. It basically needs to be re-sodded every couple of years, he said.

Kuiper also said that the rules should state that annual application fees are due January 1 of each year.

Farmers market vendor Dolly Baker asks about new market rules at the Chestertown Council meeting.

Cerino then turned to the audience for comments. Dolly Baker, a long-time vendor, said she would like to see the deadline for applications extended to Feb. 1 this year, because of the new rules coming into effect. Also, she said, there needs to be a provision for seasonal members, vendors whose products are only in season for a short time each year.

Kuiper said there is always a spot for seasonal vendors; “It’s never been a problem,” she said. “They’ve been worked in.”

Cerino suggested adding a sentence to the rules stating that seasonal vendors would be accommodated as needed.

Baker said she had filled out applications with the Kent County Department of Health. “Does the town get a copy?” she asked. She said representatives of the county came around and checked that vendors were displaying their certificates. “We just didn’t know if there was any communication to you,” she said.

Ingersoll said he hoped the health department would let the town know of any issues. He said returning vendors shouldn’t have to worry about being approved.

Baker also questioned the meaning of a rule stating that the market manager can ask a vendor to leave if they aren’t making “a significant contribution” to the market. She asked whether that would be a matter of monetary contribution, the manager’s opinion, or something else.

The rule was in the context of a vendor whose produce was found to be sub-par, Ingersoll said. “It means they’re making an effort to improve,” he said. He said the rule might be rephrased to that effect.

Jane Malone, another vendor, asked about a rule referring to licenses. She said the language is technically inaccurate, in that vendors don’t have licenses per se. Cerino suggested changing the reference to state that vendors must comply with “all applicable federal and state laws.” Malone said that would satisfy her request.

Malone asked about parking for vendors whose slots are on the grass inside the market, and therefore don’t have curbside slots. “It’s a haul for those of us bringing in produce,” she said, noting that allocation of spaces is “a tricky subject.”

Cerino said the town could reserve High Street spaces if three or four vendors got together and requested them.

Baker said nonprofit groups often take up parking spaces along the High Street perimeter before vendors get to the market. She asked if there is a way to reserve nearby spaces for market vendors.

Kuiper said the artisans’ market manager tells vendors they’re not allowed to park at Fountain Park. She said High Street is reserved for farmer vendors if there is any demand for the spaces.

Ingersoll suggested that nonprofits not be allowed to set up until an hour after the market opens, so as to allow vendors a chance to park close to their spots. Baker called that “a great suggestion.”

Cerino asked the council if they were prepared to pass the rules, contingent upon the suggested revisions discussed at the meeting. Councilman David Foster so moved, and the motion was passed unanimously. Town Clerk Jen Mulligan will work with Ingersoll and Kuiper to finalize the updated rules.

Baker thanked the council for its work. She said she would ask the market managers to call a meeting of vendors so everyone could get on the same page.

Shoge Says Bridge to Kent Would Stimulate Economy

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Sam Shoge (standing, at right) tells the Kent County Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee how a new bridge to Kent County could produce economic benefits

Sam Shoge, a former Chestertown councilman, told the Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee that the changing demographics of Kent County provide reasons to welcome, not oppose, a Bay Bridge span terminating in the county.

The meeting, in the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room Nov. 28, drew several interested listeners, including some on the anti-bridge side of the debate. Shoge’s presentation, aided by a PowerPoint display, took about an hour, including a question-and-answer session with audience participation. Shoge noted that he is a graduate of Kent County High School, and a homeowner in the county –and that he hopes, in time, to be the parent of children in the county’s public schools.

Shoge’s talk, “Kent County, Maryland: Reimagining the Status Quo,” began by noting that the county’s population has declined by 4% since 2010, from 20,191 to an estimated 19,384. This is while the population of Maryland as a whole grew by 4.8%, according to the state Department of Labor and Licensing. The county’s population peaked in 2011, with an estimated 20,250 residents. Meanwhile, the populations of Kent’s three neighboring counties – Queen Anne’s and Cecil in Maryland, and Kent in Delaware – grew steadily in the same period.

Other statistics show that Kent’s population is the third oldest in Maryland, with a median age of 46.5 (behind Talbot and Worcester counties). The percentage of residents living below the poverty line rose from 12% to 14% between 2010 and 2018, well above the statewide average of 9.7%. The population of the county’s public schools fell by 19% between 2005 and 2015 and is not expected to recover in the next decade.

Property values in Kent have also declined over the last 10 years, with median home sale prices dropping 18% since 2009, from $264,000 to $219,000. This has resulted in a 9% decline in the real property tax base in the county, with a consequent drop in the county’s tax revenues. Single-family building permits have also dropped since their peak in 2003 when 429 were issued; Amy Moredock, county Director of Planning and Zoning, said the most recent figures are not as low as Shoge said, but agreed that they have declined since the building surge of the early 2000s.

Sam Shoge

Shoge then turned to national trends for perspective. Since the early 1990s, small counties’ share of business creation has fallen from 32% to 19%, while counties whose population is over 1 million increased their share from 13% to 58%. The share of rural counties and small towns without a bank has grown from about 12% to 32% since 1995, while the amount of money lent in those areas is the lowest in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. Rural hospitals are also an endangered species, nationwide, with 120 closures since 2005 – and the National Rural Health Association estimates that more than 1/3 of 2,000 current rural hospitals are in danger of closing. Two other components of rural economies, farming, and hunting, are also in decline. None of these trends bode well for Kent, the smallest county in Maryland in terms of population.

Having established these statistics, Shoge turned to examine common arguments against adding a third span to the Bay Bridges. Some say that self-driving cars will make the new span unnecessary and obsolete. Shoge responded that it’s hard to predict when self-driving cars will become mainstream, if they ever do. It is unknown how the insurance industry and other auto-based businesses will greet their arrival. And if they do make an appearance, they may actually increase traffic by making driving easier for everyone.

To the perception that business is thriving in Kent County, with the new KRM business campus and the revival of the Chestertown Marina, Shoge said the percentage of new businesses is actually down 17% since 2005. And hundreds, if not thousands, of new residents would be needed to reverse the decline in school population.

There is also a perception that a third span should focus on mass transit rather than auto traffic. Shoge said that Kent already has mass transit in Delmarva Community Transit, which operates buses between Kent and the lower Shore. Also, mass transit is as likely as road construction to result in a boondoggle, especially in low-density areas. Finally, mass transit is no more immune to opposition from environmental groups than road building; he cited the example of the Purple Line on the Western Shore.

Shoge concluded by addressing the concern that a new bridge would result in Kent being “paved over” in the manner of Kent Island near the current bridges. He noted that 1.5 million construction workers left the business after the Great Recession, with the current median age in that business above 50 years old. And only about 6% of school children show interest in going into construction. Single-family housing construction is currently flat, while multi-family is on the increase. And that icon of suburban sprawl, the shopping mall, is apparently an endangered species, with a quarter of the existing malls in danger of closing by 2022. Retail space as a whole is down by 90 million square feet in 2018, on pace to match last year’s record of 105 million square feet of stores lost to closings. In short, Shoge said, suburban sprawl is a dying trend, with mixed-use development the model currently in favor with planners and developers.

“Our rallying cry should be, ‘Maximize the upsides and mitigate the downsides of a third span,’” Shoge said. He then suggested several planning tools that would give the county an edge in dealing with a bridge coming in from the western shore. A cap on retail square footage, strict architectural standards, and selective extension of water and sewer to designated growth areas would inhibit sprawl. At the same time, putting tolls on local feeder roads, as Virginia has done with local roads paralleling the Dulles Airport expressway, would reduce traffic on those roads. And removing parking minimums and lowering setback requirements would produce more compact neighborhoods.

In conclusion, Shoge noted that the time to adapt is limited, with recessions occurring almost every 10 years. The county needs to be ready before the next recession hits, or it may lose its opportunity to shape its own future.

The Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee (L-R): William Sutton, Torr Howell, and Tom Tontarski

Committee member Tom Tontarski agreed that the time until another recession is probably shorter than anyone would like. Because of that, a new Bay Bridge is probably not going to be built in any short time frame.

Shoge said he had begun by focusing on data precisely because the economic trends don’t look good. Recessions affect rural areas disproportionately, he said, and they have less ability to bounce back than more densely settled areas. Access to a metropolitan area, as Kent County would acquire with a bridge to Baltimore, would improve the county’s ability to recover. Human capital is a key to recovery, he said, and in the current conditions, it is difficult to bring new people here. But while building a bridge is a long-range project, the county needs to be prepared to take advantage of its impact – and to be ready to mitigate any negative effects.

Janet Christensen-Lewis and Mike Waal (seated)

Janet Christensen-Lewis, who has been one of the leaders of the effort to prevent a new bridge being built to Kent County, said that the county’s planning tools are designed to suppress new development, not enhance it – assuming that they work as intended. “You can see it all over the place, where tool boxes were put in place and now they’re restricting what is happening.” She said the tools Shoge suggested are very restrictive. She said the trend to multi-family housing came about because the population is aging – to attract younger families with children, the county needs to increase its stock of single-family housing. She pointed to Middletown as an example of the way access to a metro area affects development, with its huge increase in population a direct result of its proximity to Philadelphia.

Shoge said that all the qualities Christensen-Lewis was talking about are the qualities that make Chestertown and Kent County unique. He said the appropriate use of planning tools was to “ensure that the growth that you do get fits with the overall characteristics of your community, and you’re not using them as a bludgeon to prevent companies or businesses from doing things. (…) Ultimately, it’s going to prevent your Middletown scenario from happening here.”

Christensen-Lewis said that the Route 301 upgrade in Delaware would lead to an increase in the county’s population. The need for a bridge and the necessary connecting roads “seems to be pretty short-sighted” given that scenario, she said.

Mike Waal, a former member of the Bay Bridge Monitoring Committee, said from the audience that it’s important not to confuse the reasons for a bridge with the results of building one. The reason the Maryland Transit Authority gives for building a bridge, he said, is “to alleviate the immense amount of traffic from Delaware and Maryland shore resort areas.” He noted that the full-time population of Ocean City is about 8,000, but during the 12-week beach season, it grows to around 300,000. The major focus of the Transit Authority is on westbound traffic returning from the shore resorts, including those in Delaware, which can be as many “a million people trying to get off the shore” on a peak summer Sunday. He said a bridge running to Kent County doesn’t address that problem. Instead, it connects Kent County to Baltimore City – “and why you’d want to be hooked up with Baltimore City, with their crime rate, I can’t figure out quite yet.” He said the bridge and related infrastructure would create “a monumental headache, environmentally,” for the Transit Authority.

Waal addressed several of Shoge’s specific points. He said the push for autonomous vehicles was on account of drivers slowing down to look at the view as they reach the peak of the bridge. He also said that the current bridges are at maximum capacity and cannot support additional lanes, including mass transit lanes. In addition, people going to the beach want to carry more luggage and other belongings than they could take on a train. “That’s why we have this massive situation with cars.” He said autonomous vehicles would be usable in that scenario. He said the upper Delmarva peninsula should be considered as a regional economic environment, with people who work in Middletown seeing Kent County as a refuge – “a nice place to live.” He said the county’s planners should look at ways to “coat-tail on Middletown” as a way to enhance the county’s economy.

Shoge said he wasn’t looking at MDTA’s reasons for the bridge, but at ways to handle the results of such a bridge and “to catalyze that overall potential.” He said the Upper Shore Regional Council” is already looking at the area as an economic entity. He said the tools he suggested were also applicable to growth moving down from Middletown. “We’re still going to have some semblance of control,” and “maintaining our overall characteristics and good points.” He said he was not opposed to growth along the 301 corridor or to expansion of current businesses – “I’m for it all, in addition to the potential and possibility of a third span.” He said it would solve many of the county’s economic problems by adding to the tax base and the school population and boosting the housing market. “In the best case scenario, we start to realize some of that growth, and I am for it.”

Boogie Woogie and a Message: Daryl Davis at Sumner Hall

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Daryl Davis

The Sumner Hall concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel,” continues with a performance by pianist Daryl Davis, one of the modern masters of boogie-woogie piano. The concert, “Daryl Davis Offers Boogie Woogie and a Message,” is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8.

Davis has performed and recorded with a veritable “Who’s Who” of musicians in the blues, rock, and popular fields, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and many others. He has been a frequent performer at the Mainstay in Rock Hall, especially at Rock Hall Fallfest. So he was one of the first performers sought by Tom McHugh, who assembled the talent for the Sumner Hall series, which features performers covering historically important styles of blues, gospel and jazz music.

In addition to his musical career, over the years Davis has gained recognition for a project in which he seeks out and enters into dialogue with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The idea came to him in 1983, when a white patron in a bar where he was playing complimented him on his renditions of Jerry Lee Lewis tunes. He told the man, who turned out to be a KKK member, that Lewis’s style was patterned on African-American blues and gospel music, and in the course of the conversation, the man gave him the contact information for several KKK members.

Davis went on to meet a number of Klansmen, including the Grand Dragon of the Maryland Klan, who arrived at the interview with an armed guard. Eventually Davis convinced the man to give up his Klan membership, as a token of which he gave Davis his Klan robes. Over the years, Davis says he has been directly responsible for between 40 and 60 members leaving the Klan, and indirectly responsible for as many as 200.

He told of his experiences in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. Davis has frequently lectured on his experiences with Klan members, and was the subject of a 2016 film on PBS, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Davis has said that his success rests in part on his religious faith and partly on his belief that hatred is the result of ignorance. Getting to know someone well makes it harder to hate them.

As part of the Sumner Hall series, McHugh asked all the performers to answer audience questions about the music or anything else. In Davis’s case, this will undoubtedly include his encounters with the Klan as well as his extensive musical career.

Davis plays at Sumner Hall at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8. Some tickets, at $20 each, are still available. To make a reservation, visit the Sumner Hall website (https://aalhconcertseries.eventbrite.com)

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Town to Fill Two Police Vacancies

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Police Chief Adrian Baker

The Chestertown Police Department is seeking to fill two vacancies, Chief Adrian Baker told the Mayor and Council at their Dec. 3 meeting.

Baker said that he had had two certified officers as candidates for the openings a couple of weeks ago, but then both accepted positions with other departments that were closer to their hometowns. He said he had other candidates, including two from the local area. However, they would need to earn certification, which would require sending them to the police academy. That would cost roughly $40,000 and it would be six months before they complete the course. The candidates would need to enroll in the academy by January 4, which would require their completing a series of tests and other initial requirements by that date. In addition, to cover the vacancies, current officers would need to work overtime. He said the town might still be able to find a certified candidate to fill the gap, but it was not certain.

Baker said he had called in a favor from a friend who has a business near the academy, and who would be willing to house the two candidates there while they complete the course. That would cut some $16,000 in housing expenses from the cost of sending them to the academy, he said, reducing the cost to the town to about $25,000.

Mayor Chris Cerino asked whether the candidates would be committed to working for the town after they graduate. The usual procedure is to give new academy graduates a three-year contract, after which they are free to explore other opportunities, Baker said. If they leave the town’s police force before that time, they are expected to repay the cost of sending them to the academy.

Councilman Marty Stetson, a former town police chief, said that in his experience the cost is never repaid.

“We have been able to collect in some cases,” said Baker. He said new hires usually don’t “jump” before their contract is up.

Cerino said that if the two vacancies remain unfilled until the new hires finish the academy, the town would not have to pay the salaries for the two open positions. He asked if that would balance out the cost of the academy.

“It’s not a wash,” said Baker. Current officers would need to be paid overtime to cover all the shifts, and there is greater stress for officers working extra shifts. He said the department would do whatever was necessary to ensure coverage, “including working some shifts myself.”

Councilman David Foster asked how many current officers the town had sent to the academy. Baker said about 1/3 were sent to the academy by Chestertown, with the rest being experienced officers hired from other jurisdictions.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper asked if the expected proceeds from the sale of surplus town property might bring in enough to cover the academy cost.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the proceeds would probably come close, but that the sales were still not final. He said he would look at the budget and see where the money could be found. Recruiting new officers locally and sending them to the academy was a good investment in the future, he said since they were more likely to stay in the community. He said the council needed to agree in principle to fund the candidates’ time in the academy. “We can’t wait two or three weeks,” he said, noting that scheduling tests and other appointments could be tricky during the holiday season.

The council agreed to cover the cost of sending two candidates to the academy.

Lauren Frick of Washington College’s Enactus tells the council about a project to install electric car chargers for a rideshare program

Also at the meeting, Lauren Frick of Washington College’s Enactus chapter gave a presentation on a proposal to install chargers for electric cars in town, using them to support a ride share program. Enactus, a student organization partnering with local business leaders, aims to use innovative approaches to empower the economically disadvantaged. One of its recent projects was “Soap with Hope,” the sale of handmade soaps, with the proceeds used to help residents of developing countries improve sanitation and start their own Frick said that a preliminary study suggested that the town’s third ward might be a good location since a large number of residents of that area appear not to own vehicles.

She asked if the council would provide a letter of support for the project.

Council members had several questions about the logistics of the proposal. Frick said that users could reserve a car by using an app on their phones. Greenspot would cover insurance on the rideshare vehicles. She said there would be no cost to the town if the stations are installed on public land.

Cerino said the town would still have the costs of maintaining the property and performing general repairs. He said the recently refurbished town-owned marina might be a good spot for terminals, which would allow boaters coming into town to drive to local stores for supplies.

Kuiper said that a local business in the third ward had just installed chargers at its own expense and that they might not appreciate competition from a nonprofit using town property.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he appreciated the proposal to put the stations in his ward, where it might help people gain economic independence. “I hope it will bring in some entrepreneurial opportunities,” he said.

Ingersoll said he liked the idea of locating the stations in the marina, where there would be staff on hand to keep an eye on the operation.

Foster said that rideshares are very widespread in Washington State, where his son lives. He said his son gave up owning a car because it cost less to use a rideshare when he needed one.

Stetson said that most people in rural areas like Kent County need cars because there is no public transportation.

The council agreed to provide a letter of support.

The council adopted a resolution extending a tax credit to businesses building in the enterprise zone at the north end of town. It would give graduated tax credits over a 10-year period. Ingersoll said the town had promised to extend the credits at the time it annexed the property now being developed as the KRM Chestertown Business Campus, and that it would realize “a windfall” in property taxes once the campus is completed.

Also at the meeting, Cerino read a proclamation designating Jan. 22, 2019, a National Day of Racial Healing.

The council will be judging the Christmas decoration contest over the next couple of week, with winners to be announced at the first meeting in January. Two residential winners in each ward will be chosen by the council members, with the mayor choosing two commercial winners from the business district.

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Council Updating Farmers Market Rules

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Chestertown Farmers Market

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.

Jamie Williams, Kent County Director of Economic Development

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, reviews the organizations’ goals and mission.

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.

Chestertown mayor Chris Cerino dons his Dickens Weekend hat. – Photo by Peter Heck

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.

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