Jun 10, 2015 09:13AM
● Published by J. Chambless
Gallery: Chesapeake City [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Steven Hoffman
When Natalie Ricci found a building that was vacant on Bohemia Avenue in the historic southern section of Chesapeake City, she knew that the charming, historic town along the C & D Canal was an ideal location for her shop, Belle Connell’s Emporium. A unique shop deserves a unique setting, and Ricci knew that her distinctive gift shop would fit right in with the picturesque 19th century homes, waterfront restaurants, shops and inviting bed & breakfasts. Ricci relocated the business from Elkton last August, and now she is immersed in the close-knit Chesapeake City business community. This year, she’s serving as the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve always loved Chesapeake City,” explained Ricci, who was raised in nearby Cecilton and attended Bohemia Manor High School. “You can come off the bridge and step back in time.”
Indeed, unlike so many small towns located near an interstate, Chesapeake City maintains the historic character and charm that would make it suitable for a Rockwell illustration. In his state of the town address earlier this year, Chesapeake City Mayor Dean Geracimos proudly noted that Chesapeake City is “just ten miles off the interstate, but a million miles away from the hustle and bustle.”
The town’s origins can be traced to the opening, in 1829, of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which significantly increased the ship traffic. The town sprang up along the banks of the canal, and it was originally named the Village of Bohemia or Bohemia Manor by explorer Augustine Herman. Many of the distinctive, picturesque buildings that formed the town’s heart back then still stand today. The town’s name was changed to Chesapeake City in 1839 and it was incorporated a decade later. The two sides of the town were connected by a drawbridge until 1942, which is when a freighter struck it and destroyed it. The arched bridge that now connects the north side to the south side opened in 1949. The canal, which is now 450 feet wide, ranks among the busiest in the entire world. Yet, Chesapeake City remains a hidden treasure.
Town leaders are working collaboratively to boost economic development in the town, and a key part of that is promoting Chesapeake City as a tourist destination. This effort includes everything from using landscaping and signage to spruce up the town’s gateways to securing grants for infrastructure improvements to developing a comprehensive economic plan to revitalize the village business district.
Ricci, who previously served as a tourism director for Cecil County back in the 1980s, works closely with Carla Miners, Chesapeake City’s director of economic development and tourism. This is the first year that the town has had a person with the designated duty of handling tourism and working on building the Chesapeake City brand.
“The whole point,” said Ricci, “is that Chesapeake City is a destination. Chesapeake City has a lot to offer.”
That starts with some of the unique shops in town. Chesapeake City is home to a number of distinctive businesses like My Jewelry Place, the Old Gray Mare Gift Shoppe, Toys from the Attic & More, and the Vulcan’s Rest Fibers, which has been in town for 13 years and has a national clientele. This niche shop sells yarn, fiber arts supplies, and gifts that are handmade, and also offers a variety of classes on knitting, weaving, and rug-hooking.
“You would never expect to find something like that in a small town,” Ricci said.
Chesapeake City officials are looking to enhance the historic character of the town, especially in the designated Historic District. In 2014, the town passed an ordinance that requires utility companies to pay up to 50 percent of the costs to bury telephone, cable, and electrical lines underground, so that the town will have a clean, historic look.
There are a number of great restaurants and eateries in town, including the Chesapeake Inn, Schaeffer’s Canal House Restaurant & Canal Bar, the Bayard House, South Side’s Bar, and the Tap Room.
Another local treasure is the C & D Canal Museum created by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s a charming little museum showcasing the history of the hand-dug canal which has transformed into the third-busiest shipping canal in the world, and it’s free,” Miners said. “There are a lot of interactive activities and the actual steam engine that operated the canal locks is a fascinating display in a room of its own."
The Army Corps of Engineers has not been able to keep the museum open on weekends, but this summer three restaurants—the Chesapeake Inn, Schaefer’s Canal House, and the Bayard House are staffing it on a rotating basis with their own workers so that the museum will be open on weekends.
That’s just one illustration of people in organizations in Chesapeake City working together.
“When you have a town of 800 residents, it’s collaborative, no matter what,” Ricci said. “It’s the same pool of people helping with everything. It’s all the same group of people, so we’re all working together.”
The Chamber of Commerce has 30 to 35 members, and the goal is to increase that number.
With its proximity to the water, Chesapeake City is a natural place for recreational activities, and one of the goals that Mayor Geracimos talked about in his presentation was to increase the park areas and recreational opportunities in Chesapeake City. Town officials want to create a kayak, canoe, and paddle board launch on Back Creek.
Miners said that the C & D Canal Recreational Trail, which features 17 miles of trails, is about to open in June. The new trail leg will connect with the Mike Castle Recreation Trail out of Delaware City and the Maryland section will be dedicated to Senator Ben Cardin, who facilitated the Maryland leg of what promises to be a major trail for runners, hikers, and bicyclists.
Miners said that she sees opportunities to attract businesses that cater to these recreational activities.
“We would like to see some trail-related shops, like a bike shop,” Miners explained. “That would be wonderful.”
Chesapeake City’s picturesque beauty makes it a popular place for weddings, and there are opportunities for the town to add wedding-related businesses.
“We have an amazing amount of weddings that take place here because it’s so beautiful,” Miners said, “so wedding-related shops would do very well.”
The town works with the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations to stage a variety of events throughout the year, and one of the stated goals is to establish special events that benefit both residents and visitors.
There’s a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March. The summers are filled with community events like free summer Sunday Concerts in the Park (starting July 5) and a July 4 fireworks extravaganza over the canal each year on the Friday night before the Fourth of July so that the festivities don’t conflict with other holiday happenings. There is an annual pet parade late in the fall where everybody dresses up their pets. Winterfest of Lights is enormously popular in November and December, and the Candlelight Home Tour, which features 10 to 15 homes decorated for the holidays in December, is also a local favorite.
“Christmas is really something special here,” Ricci said. “Chesapeake City has that Christmas card kind of look”
Chesapeake City has been working with Cecil County and the state to create tax incentives to attract new businesses and increase home ownership in town.
Geracimos said that one of the main goals in the future is to recruit new shops, such as a bridal boutique, bicycle sales and rentals, a coffeehouse, a bakery, and a fine arts gallery.
Many people are optimistic about Chesapeake City’s future.
“I think Chesapeake City has always been a nice waterfront town to visit,” explained local business owner Steve Connell, who partnered with his father, Tom Connell, on M/V Bay Breeze, which offers boat cruises. “We have the water. We have the views. I think it’s an up-and-coming area, and in the next ten years it’s going to be a place to go, especially in the summer. Now, it’s a matter of working together and growing businesses.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.