Robert J. Alt, Mayor of ElktonDec 07, 2022 11:12AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Born and raised in Elkton and first elected to town council in 1994, Robert Alt was first elected as the Mayor of Elkton in 1998. After a 12-year hiatus, he ran again and won. As he begins his third and final term, Alt spoke with Cecil County Life about the challenges facing the town, initiatives that would boost the critical mass needed to stimulate the business, residential and cultural sectors, and who he would like to invite to a special dinner.
Cecil County Life: What first got you involved in politics?
Alt: I didn’t really even want to be involved in politics, but I had a water main break in the front of my home in 1990. I called the town that morning and told them that I think we had a broken water main. By the time I came home, the Public Works Department had the road torn up, had replaced the water main, but I still had no water, because they told me that they couldn’t go on my property, and that I was responsible for what was on my property line.
I didn’t have any idea who to reach out to. I didn’t know who the mayor was, or anyone on the council. I got involved in order to change the way of thinking – to look at that the town’s residents not just as residents but as customers – and if we have to go on a person’s property in order to fix a problem, we will do it, and work together as a team. I have always tried to bring that sense of teamwork to the floor.
You were elected as mayor again this past May, and you still have four years remaining in the office. In your opinion, what is the most important issue facing Elkton over the next few years, and how does government, the business community and residents of Elkton work in partnership to address it?
The biggest challenge that we have been seeing and continue to see is in public safety. The petty- and drug-related activity crimes have continued to rise, and it has been challenging to be pro-active when addressing those issues. Serving as a mayor, I never thought I would ever have to know everything about drug issues and addiction issues, and it’s been difficult to wrap our collective arms around it.
Within this building and less than two blocks away, you have representation from the health, business, policing and educational industries, as well as a concerned community. With all of this capability surrounding your office, how do we work in consultation with each other to solve the issue of drugs and drug violence?
We have professionals in all of these fields. We have health clinics and health services. We have a very qualified and professional policing department. We have a good judicial system. I think we have all of the pieces of the wheel needed to tackle this issue. It may have taken years to put these pieces together, but I truly believe that it is rolling in the right direction today.
In 2001, during my first term as mayor, a group gave a presentation to council about setting up a methadone clinic in Elkton. Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us knew anything about methadone in 2001, but that first clinic was essential for Elkton. In the last 20 years, we have added additional clinics and family service centers to our community infrastructure that have helped us become stronger and see us through this cycle.
Let’s talk about the Downtown Elkton Master Plan. Where does the project stand right now in its progress, and what economic and cultural impact will this project have in Elkton once it is completed?
In 2008, there was a downtown master plan introduced, and it talked about the expansion of county government into downtown Elkton and also included a huge expansion of the County Building. The county then decided to move to the Upper Chesapeake Corporate Center, and in the process, it took away a critical mass of people.
In order to have an effective downtown, you need that critical mass of people. On a positive side, we started to address the trend that began to lead to the closing of our smaller shops here. We really believed that we could become an arts and entertainment district, and so we began to promote the sale of properties to local entrepreneurs. I said that we have to create this from things you can’t buy on Amazon – like food, music and events – and on just about every Friday in Elkton now, you can enjoy great music, great food and cultural activities.
Here’s a great example of that vision in action: The old town hall on 107 North Street is about to become a music venue and is currently being restored. It will really feed into what we are trying to accomplish.
One of the key components of this long-range plan is the establishment of a commuter rail stop in downtown Elkton that will create a “Train to Main” connection. Do you see that eventually becoming a reality?
Thirty years ago, there was an Amtrak stop in Elkton, and then it went dormant, so we’re looking to establish a commuter rail stop here. We are confident that Maryland Transit will connect to SEPTA in Newark, and once the connection is made, that there will be a stop in Elkton to follow. Once established, it will bring the critical mass that we need in order to boost our economic downtown development.
Part of our revitalization will be retrofitting affordable housing opportunities not just for students nearby at the University of Delaware, but units for commuters. Once you have that amount of people here – that critical mass -- they will use Elkton’s services and enjoy its cultural growth.
The business infrastructure is in many ways already locking into place, in advance of the roll out of the Downtown Elkton Plan and the planned rail stop, yes?
We have Terumo Medical, as well Northrop Grumman, W.L. Gore and recruited another company known as Clene, in addition to the industries that we already have in our downtown district.
I strongly believe that all growth should be within municipalities that have existing infrastructure – that Elkton, North East, Perryville and Rising Sun should be growing within the framework of what is already well established, not in the outer regions of the county. The town of Elkton is eight-and-half square miles, and we need to focus and push as much industry and business into the area as we can.
You have another long-term initiative that’s been in the conversation stage for quite some time and is about to become a reality – what is now called the Southfield Sports Park.
For years, our residents have said to me, ‘We need better restaurants and hotels,’ but in order to create those possibilities, you need that critical mass of people. They’re not going to come unless you have a reason for them to be here. At first, I tried to sell the concept for a sports complex to the town but it was just too large a project.
Four years ago, I met with Ray Jackson of Stonewall Development, who is the developer for Southfields of Elkton. He looked at the concept and told me, ‘Mayor Alt, if you give me the opportunity to create a commerce center, some apartments and single-family homes, I will build your sports complex around it.’
They have built one-third of the Elkton Commerce Center, are working on the final approvals for the 300 single-family homes and the 300-unit apartment complex, developing two hotels and multiple restaurants, creating a new park on the water and performing streambed restoration – and the sports complex figures into that design.
What will Southfields of Elkton to for the Elkton community?
This will bring about 45,000 overnight visitors to Elkton in an average year. Not only will we have the transient dollar, but we will also have the “Work, Live, Play” contingent who are needed to fill the jobs.
First and foremost, it will strengthen our downtown district, because that’s where the heart of a community resides. I want our downtown to thrive, and the more that projects like Southfields of Elkton happen around us, that critical mass will want to come to downtown Elkton.
On your last day in office as the Mayor of Elkton – when you close the door to your office for the last time – what do you most want to have achieved during your time in office? Where do you most want to have left your imprint, your signature?
Eight years ago, at the time I was elected as mayor, we were coming out of a terrible economy. Our assessments were actually going down, and the value of living in our community was stagnant. What I can say when I leave here is that we have doubled our taxable base – from $1.1 billion in assessable tax dollars to well over $2 billion over the next four years. I am very proud of that. I believe that there will be a huge opportunity to reduce our tax base in Elkton, and that the next mayor is not going to have to worry about seeking money from our residents.
I felt like I was hired as the economic director when I was first elected as mayor, and I have accomplished these goals, and continue to build on other projects, as well. We’re building a new pump house. We’re building another water tower, which will bring us up to five water towers. We were also able to build a state-of-the-art neighborhood community center. Our infrastructure is very solid in Elkton, and will remain so for many, many years.
What have you loved most about your job as the Mayor of Elkton?
The smaller the town, the closer an elected official is to the people. If you love people, you need to be in a smaller community, because you get to affect people’s lives for the positive on a daily basis. If a neighbor calls about a water and sewer issue, for instance, we can’t react, immediately.
What is your favorite place to visit in Cecil County?
One of my most favorite events is the Fair Hill Races. I love thoroughbred racing, and I am proud that Cecil County is a part of that. I also love going into Chesapeake City. I love visiting North East, and I enjoy the amenities in Perryville and their park.
But of all of these places, downtown Elkton is where I most want to be.
Robert Alt throws a dinner party, and he gets to invite anyone he wishes – living or not, famous or not. Who will we see around that dinner table?
I would imagine two different dinner parties. I lost my mother when she was 53 and I was 20, so there is no question that I would love to sit down over dinner just with her.
I am a huge baseball fan, and I would love to be at a table with Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, and Frank and Brooks Robinson – just to hear their stories. I love the era of baseball in the 1950s and 1960s.
What food or item can always be found in your refrigerator?
There is always some type of dairy product in there. I am a milk drinker, but there are always cheeses, as well, but cottage cheese is probably my favorite.
- Richard L. Gaw