Port Deposit: Future town along the Susquehanna
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
There is a dramatic stairway of 75 steps in Port Deposit that begins on High Street and descends to Main Street, providing a beautiful vista of the Susquehanna River.
Originally known as the Tome Steps, the sailors who were stationed at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center called the structure "the Steps to Liberty," which gave them a brief freedom from the regiment of their duties in order to enjoy the nightlife of this shoreside town.
If there is an official first steps of a tour through a town that has known a rich history, has survived the tumult of natural-made disasters and man-made decisions, and is on the very cusp of a future that rides on the backs of its biggest visionaries, it is here, at the top of these steps.
Yes, you know about the architectural splendor of past -- the hard bones of its Georgian, Federal, Victorian and Greek Revival design, that can still be seen at the Cecil National Bank, the Gerry House, the Winchester Hotel, the Falls Hotel and the Rappaport Building.
Yes, you know that Port Deposit was a well-functioning industrial town.
You know that the naval center closed in 1976, and that the historic Jacob Tome Institute Elementary School burned down in 1969, and when it was re-opened in 1972, it moved to North East.
You know that in 1984, the Wiley Manufacturing Company, which had employed hundreds of local workers, closed its operations, a move that financially devastated the town and left Port Deposit scrambling to reclaim its identity.
And yes, you know about the floods. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes swept through the town, and in 1996, flooding severely damaged Main Street, just like another flood did in 2011.
On your tour, however, you can not allow that past to cloud up what is happening here.
You need to know that the Bainbridge Development Corporation is in the process of converting the former naval base into a mixed-use development that will bring new residents and new business to the immediate area.
You need to know that both Newport Landing and Tomes Landing on the banks of the Susquehanna are pulling in a new demographic -- one that has not only moved to Port Deposit for the quaintness of a small town, but are lending their voices and ideas to the town's redevelopment.
You need to know that these streets you walk on are filled on summer weekends -- from sun-tanned retirees with boats to college students grabbing camaraderie and a few cold ones with friends at Lee's Landing Dock Bar, where it's often an hour-long wait on summer evenings. You need to know that Bob Steele's Backfin Blues Bar & Grill is an equally tough ticket, and that reservations are often required well in advance, and just outside of town, the Union Hotel Restaurant & Tavern is a friendly step back in time for thousands of diners every year.
You need to know that every week, there are dreamers who walk up and down Main Street, who imagine owning a small business there.
You need to know that in 2017, the Maryland State Highway Administration will repave Main Street and place new sidewalks there, as part of a streetscape project intended to beautify the town.
On this tour that you take, you need to remove yourself the tragedies that have threatened to fold up Port Deposit like an accordion and understand that there are people here -- leaders of business and volunteer architects armed with vision -- who refuse to accept that all that's left of Port Deposit is the crumbling remnants of an era that was once here, then vanished.
From nearly every direction she faces, town administrator Vicki Rinkerman can feel what she describes as "a buzz."
From a conference table at the Port Deposit Town Hall, Rinkerman points in every direction to the projects going on that will bring this town fully into the new century. She points to the success of the Newport Landing townhomes and the Tome Landing condominiums. She points behind her in the direction of the Bainbridge Development just east of Main Street, the 1,200-acre complex that is being planned, with a very large residential component.
"The reason I came to work here is because we are a town that is absolutely on the threshold of becoming one of the most happening places in all of Cecil County," said Rinkerman, who began her position two years ago. "It's not from my work, but from the work of people who have lived here all of their lives, and also people who have moved here recently. I'm fortunate that I get to see these projects that have been started, all the way to completion."
In the very room where Rinkerman confidently paints the future of Port Deposit, elected and appointed officials struggle to find the answer to a question that has plagued a thousand towns across the United States just like Port Deposit, once thriving hamlets that have seen big business go away and with it, opportunity, and are left trying to prevent the dusty facade of their history from falling down: Who Are We?
As spelled out in the town's comprehensive plan, they've come up with a possible answer:
"The town of Port Deposit is an economically revitalized community that seeks to promote and enhance the inherent 19th-Century character of its Old Town, preserve its unique natural resources and association with its river front, and stimulate new development that strengthens the Town's traditional core."
"It was a working, industrial town, and our historic culture and background is still a huge draw, not only in terms of Main Street but the Bainbridge naval base," Rinkerman said. "When that naval academy was here, there were upwards of 60,000 people a day up there, so you can imagine the impact it had down here. There were grocery stores, drug stores. What we're trying to do is preserve that historical base, while at the same time build an economic and environmental infrastructure around it."
Rinkerman said that among the many projects that are currently underway or in the final planning stages are to build a comfort station in Marina Park, extend the length of the Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Trail that runs along the river, and convert the historic Tome Gas House to a visitor's center on its lower level, and redevelop the building's top floor to a research and education center that will be used through a partnership with Towson State University, to study the endangered Northern Map Turtle.
"Over the last six months, with the visitors center and research center being built, I have had a lot of people coming through these doors, asking how they can open a business in Port Deposit or buy and restore an historic home in town," Rinkerman said. "Our next step is to create service opportunities, in order to draw people to visit the little shops along Main Street and dine in one of our fine restaurants.
"We look to see ourselves eventually the way Chesapeake city has evolved, as a full-day destination."
To Port Deposit Mayor Wayne Tome -- whose ancestry is generally considered to be the First Family of the town -- the prospect of the local economy will be dependent on what happens along the Susquehanna River.
"What drives the town is the waterfront amenity," he said. "I always tell people the river is our greatest asset and our worst enemy, because it brings flooding, but it also beings recreation and opportunity. Come to Port Deposit on most days and walk up and down Marina Park and you will already see how effectively it's all being redefined. We've turned from an industrial town to a water recreation town."
The construction of 110 waterfront condominiums at Tome's Landing and 16 townhomes at Newport Landing has been one of the key facelifts to the town's previously underutilized waterfront, but it's by no means the last of the development ideas. Rinkerman said that the town has partnered with the Heritage Corporation and Habitat for Humanity to revitalize historic homes, and that Port Deposit has applied for grants intended to pay for improvements to the streetscape design and aesthetics.
But it's up the road apiece, elevated about 200 feet above Main Street, where the biggest plans for Port Deposit exist -- plans that are still on the drawing board of concept, design and approval in order to create one of the largest mix-use planned communities on the East Coast.
On the site of the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center, the 1,200 acres that make up the planned Bainbridge mixed-use center will provide 2.5 million square feet of commercial opportunities and a residential complex that will house a minimum of 1,250 homes.
"The Bainbridge community is our industrial and residential future," Tome said. "We fully hope that it will be restored into a contiguous community. Its yet to be seen, but eventually, we see it as a combination of commercial, industry and residential."
In 1972, when Tome was eight years old, Hurricane Agnes swept through Port Deposit. The family scrambled to get back to normal, but it was nearly impossible. He remembers his father pumping out the basement in order to keep the water away from the home furnace. He remembers that the town had turned into a quagmire of mud -- two and three feet at it biggest height.
It's a scenario that has plagued Port Deposit for several generations, and it's finally being addressed in order to prevent it from happening again. Next spring, Port Deposit will undergo a major stormwater drainage project, to be coordinated by the Maryland State Highway Administration, that will redevelop the town's entire drainage system. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers has developed a flood hazard mitigation study for the town.
"With the stormwater drain project about to come through and being able to close off those flooding underpasses, the town has attacked the flooding, in order to hugely decrease the impact of flooding, if not eliminate it, altogether," Rinkerman said. "This will be huge for this town."
"Port Deposit will never be the way it was, but it's being recreated in a way that honors its past and creates a new way of presenting itself," Tome said. "You won't see ships being built on the waterfront, but you will see people enjoying the restaurants and shops, and the riverfront and the parks. A lot of things are happening that will enable us to secure our future."
When asked to point in the direction of the Port Deposit's spirit and heart, Rinkerman did not hesitate to offer her answer.
"It's our people who will save this town," she said. "Government will not do it. It has to come from the community, and it doesn't matter if you've lived here your whole life or if you've just moved here.
"This is a sleepy little hollow and then you peel away a layer and it's like 'Wow!' We are slowly becoming one of the most happening towns in all of Cecil County. The sun is shining on little Port Deposit."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.