By Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner
A brief history of Middletown:
Founded in 1767, Middletown lies about 60 miles west of Baltimore, eight miles west of the City of Frederick, and 20 miles southeast of Hagerstown, in Frederick County, Maryland. The town sits along the original National Road, the first federally funded road, created by an act of Congress in 1806.
One if its greatest claims to fame is that during the Civil War, Middletown was a route for both armies to the historic battles waged at Antietam (20 miles to the west on the border of West Virginia) and South Mountain (25 miles north on the Pennsylvania border). Following the famously gruesome battles, Middletown’s churches and homes tended to the wounded, among them Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, future reconstructionist and 19th President of the United States.
In September, the Maryland Economic Development Association (MEDA), a nonprofit organization of economic development professionals), recognized Middletown for the transformation of its main street and its outstanding contribution to economic development in the state.
I visited the town in early October, coincidentally during their delightful and very non-traditional scarecrow decorating contest and strolled their main street with Main Street Middletown Manager, Becky Axilbund. Although a Maryland native, I had never been there before and was eager to see the town for myself.
At the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning), we were especially eager to learn more about how the town has succeeded in drawing new commercial activity and breathing new life into this charming community of fewer than 5,000 people. We were interested in understanding its success, not only during a global pandemic, but also at a time when rural cities and towns everywhere are all too often shrinking.
Q: When did Middletown become a Main Street community and when did you join the effort?
Middletown received its designation in 2009 as both a National and Maryland Main Street community, meaning that the town committed to support the goals of the national Main Street program, which uses a four-point approach to help communities promote their unique assets. The four points consist of program areas related to design, economic development, promotions, and organization and, in Maryland, a 5th point called clean, green, and healthy. (For more on the origins and mission of the Main Street program, see our article entitled An Interview with Mary Means, Main Street Movement Pioneer, Dec. 15, 2020).
In 2011, as the new Main Street manager in a relatively new Main Street town, it felt almost like starting from scratch. Things have really picked up steam in the past few years, but the changes in just the past year have been unprecedented. It’s so exciting to see the fruits of our labors really start to unfold!
Q: What area exactly does it cover and what part of the community does it serve?
The Main Street district straddles East and West Main Street approximately two blocks to the east and six-seven blocks to the west of MD Route 17, which runs north-south. The district also covers roughly four blocks to the south and two-three blocks to the north of Main Street along MD Route 17. (See Fig. 1, below.) More than 95 percent of the structures in the Main Street district are historic, and that district is a subset of the larger Middletown Historic District, which is listed in the national Register of Historic Places.
Q: What were the issues/challenges and the perceived needs of the community that Middletown was seeking to address in becoming a Main Street?
The Town of Middletown sought the Main Street designation as a commitment to economic development, to honor and preserve the vast array of historic properties, and to promote the town in a positive manner as a great place to live, work, and play.
Not surprisingly Middletown, like many small towns, had little to no funds available for advertising and promotion. When I was hired, it was also evident that our Main Street district was comprised of different types of businesses than what most people think of when they picture a “typical” Main Street. Its business makeup is dominated more by service industries than retail. So, organizing a social event like a “pub-crawl” in a town where there were only two bars, or promoting holiday sales where there were only three retail stores, was not going to work as a strategy to draw visitors.
Not to speak unkindly of this gem of a town, but the reality was -: why would anyone shop on Small Business Saturday in Middletown when they could go to Frederick, visit dozens of shops, restaurants, and pubs, enjoy a wider selection of goods, and have a much richer experience? That concern used to stress me out! Thus, it became my mission to figure out what we could do that was different and unique to Middletown.
The task, therefore, was to get more people downtown strolling the sidewalks, not merely speeding through town, by catching their attention and giving them a reason to stop. Some tactics included making parking easier, adding both informational and wayfinding signage to engage them once they do, and of course draw new businesses to the district. This is an ongoing effort.
It all boiled down to really looking at and applying the principles of the Main Street program including design/historic preservation, promotions, economic development, and organization. What could I and my partners do under each of the program areas that would address a need? The real, overarching need is as always, in every Main Street town, figuring out what can be done to see the downtown thrive.
Q: What were/are the goals and projected outcomes of the effort?
Main Street Middletown’s goals were and continue to be: 1) preserving and revitalizing historic properties in the center of town 2) achieving 100% occupancy rates in commercial/retail spaces 3) increasing mixed-use commercial residential 4) adding employment opportunities and 5) creating venues for dining, shopping, and social gatherings (COVID notwithstanding!).
It made sense to play up our history – it is a fantastic asset – and use the opportunities presented by having a commemorative event as a tie-in. At Main Street, we pursued a $20,000 grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authorityi in 2014 timed with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy and all the events leading up to that major Civil War conflict. Among these included the ransoming of Middletown along with Frederick, Hagerstown, as well as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by the Confederate Army.
At a celebration, we installed the first two interpretive signs at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets. The two signs visually sum up the town’s unique history and pride in that history. We even presented the finished project at the National Main Street Conference the following year where it was quite well received. These events are what really started putting us on the map!
Building upon an SHA streetscape project, which began in 2017 and finished this year (it’s down to just a punch list of items to be completed now), the town simultaneously invested in waterline replacements. The project was a bit of a rite of passage for us because it’s work that needed to be done, and it was great that the town was able to time the much-needed waterline improvements along with it, but having the streets torn up was rough on the local businesses.
To counteract some of the negative effects on walking and parking in downtown, we also worked with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Garrett Glover, a business consultant with the SBDC out of College Park, worked one-on-one to help Main Street business owners develop strategies for coping with construction disruptions. We also worked to create a Construction Survival Guide with the Frederick County Office of Economic Development (OED).
Q: Who are the key partners (community groups, non-profit organizations, local, and state agencies) involved in revitalizing the town? Has the state assisted/played a role?
As Main Street Manager, together with our nine-member board of volunteers from the community, I work closely with Middletown Town Council as well as the Burgess, long-time Middletown resident, political activist, and retired teacher, John D. Miller, to promote local business (note: Middletown is one of just a few towns/municipalities in Maryland to have a burgess as opposed to a mayor). A significant development in this on-going effort was the recent creation of the Downtown Revitalization Zone Incentive Program, approved by the Burgess and Commissioners in October 2020.
Figure 3 – Map showing locations of recent rehab/redevelopment along Main Street Middletown. Courtesy: Cindy Unangst, Staff Planner, Department of Planning and Zoning, Middletown, MD.
The Revitalization Zone program created specific financial incentives to attract investment in Middletown’s timeless, older buildings. The zone itself aligns precisely with the Main Street district to reinforce the town’s commitment to historic downtown as the core of our community.
The Burgess and Commissioners have prioritized economic development and revitalization of these buildings to keep Middletown a vibrant, thriving town.
The goals of this program include: the revitalization of vacant buildings; increasing job opportunities; increasing property tax revenues; and preserving historic building facades in conjunction with other preservation programs supporting preserving of Middletown’s historical and architecturally significant buildings. Incentives offered through the Revitalization Zone program can save businesses up to $14,000 on waived water tap and sewer tap Equivalent Dwelling Unit (EDU) fees and improvement fees not to exceed the funded amount of the grant program.
Other incentives offered include deferred water and sewer tap EDU fees, parking requirement waivers, expedited navigation through the town’s planning commission and board of appeals processes, waiver of all planning commission board of appeals fees (a savings of more than $3,000) and project “kick-off” meetings with myself (Main Street Middletown Manager), town staff, and at least one elected official. We strive to offer a supportive, business-friendly experience at Main Street Middletown!
Being part of a Main Street community, Middletown businesses also have access to special lending and incentive programs offered by the state. The workhorse of the financial incentive programs is our Façade Improvement Program which offers up to 50% of a qualifying business’s project costs for a maximum of $50,000 (i.e., subject up to the total funding awarded to Main Street Middletown by the state). Main Street Middletown also engages in activities such as the Frederick Chamber of Business Expo and the Frederick County Business Appreciation Week to collectively promote the business community.
Q: Main Street Middletown has recently experienced a bit of a boom, despite the pandemic. – to what do you attribute this success, including the timing?
Well, it may seem like it’s been nearly overnight and while a lot of things have occurred in the last year-and-a-half, it’s also been a long time both in the planning and the making! The timeline over my tenure, at least, is punctuated by some rather large events, and then a few the smaller pieces just seemed to coalesce and fall into place. It’s a little hard to describe in a narrative form, as so many things have overlapped and been rather intertwined, so we appreciate the visual timeline you created based on our conversation and notes (see Fig. 5 for detailed timeline, below). However, here is a brief recap of some of the major milestones:
2009 – Middletown becomes a Main Street Community
2014 – Interpretive Signage Project is installed in conjunction with commemoration of the Civil War Monocacy Campaign.
2015 – Interpretive Signage Project is presented by Main Street Middletown at the national Main Street Conference.
2016 – Gladhill Furniture Company at the fork of West Main and Walnut streets invests $400k in façade improvements – the first large, privately-funded investment in the Main Street district.
2017 – Middletown Turns 250 Years-Old
2017-2021 — SHA Streetscape Construction Project commences. As mentioned, we’re in the “punch list” phase now, with most of the construction having been completed just before the pandemic hit. Frankly, I don’t think anyone would disagree when I say it was disheartening to be on the tail end of a very long construction project, only to face the hardships and uncertainty of the country shutting down.
2018-2019 – The “Dr. Lamar House” at 200 West Main Street begins an extensive rehabilitation on the interior and exterior by Boggs Environmental. This building has an interior and exterior Maryland Historic Trust (MHT) easement. Main Street Middletown provided $50,000 in Façade Improvement Funds to help offset some of their expenses, but this was one of the first large improvement projects in the Main Street district.
2019 – 19-21 West Main Street is purchased by us, Main Street Middletown. After getting some funding lined up (and getting through the tougher parts of COVID), we were able to begin the rehab on this space. We have an MHT easement on the exterior of the property, so all work must be reviewed/approved by MHT.
Spring 2020 to Spring 2021 – we saw a lot of action in our Main Street district:
Spring 2020 –The Old Fire Station on Church Street had a sign go up for the national headquarters of Fordham Lee Distillery. The owners are from Middletown and live here, but the actual bourbon is made in North Carolina. It’s exciting to have a business’s national headquarters located here! The Old Fire Station was also a bit of a white elephant kind of building as, although only vacant for about four years, because it was county-owned, there hadn’t been a big push to sell it. This was a welcome addition to the district!
Summer-Fall 2020 – The “Arnett Building” and The Wren’s Nest at 1 West Main Street and 100-104 West Main, respectively, use Main Street Façade Improvement funds to paint and/or repair their exterior trim.
Summer-Winter 2020 – Valley Register building at 123 West Main Street is purchased and rehabbed. We were super fortunate to have been able to work closely with a few truly special developers and local businesses.
A pivotal moment came when in the summer of 2020 when the Valley Register building (Middletown’s former, now-defunct newspaper), which had been in poor condition and vacant for a number of years, was purchased by an independent developer.
By the end of that year, Elkana Bar-Eiten (we call him Elkie!), had completed the rehab of this important landmark, converting a run-down structure into very hip apartment spaces.
Complete with exposed beams, window seats, views to South Mountain, and preserved details, each living space is unique. We held the ribbon-cutting in early December 2020 and, before the end of January, amazingly, all the commercial and residential spaces had been filled.
Early 2021 – 19-21 West Main Street rehab begins in earnest as we lifted the building to repair/replace the crumbling foundation, a $97,000 fix. The local news reported it, bringing more attention to our town’s transformation! (Of course, we are a nonprofit, so we want to let everyone know what we do to fuel interest and donations!)
Early 2021 – Memorial Hall near the corner of East Main Street and MD 17 – is purchased by developer Elkie and a group of investors. Constructed in 1923 as a memorial to returning WWI soldiers, Memorial Hall was vacant for more than 40 years, so this was super exciting.
The building was in worse shape, has some difficult site issues, and much larger than the Valley Register building. It was in part to make this project more financially feasible to complete, that the Town created the Downtown Revitalization Zone.
Spring-Summer 2021 – 4 New Businesses Move into Town: Production Payroll Services moves into 123 West Main; Mid-Maryland Farm Market opens in 102 West Main (inside of Wren’s Nest); The Vine Garden Plant Outlet also moves into 102 West Main (back yard of Wren’s Nest); and Oak and Steel Live Edge Furniture opens for business in 1 West Main Street.
Q: What has been the largest hurdle to overcome in the revitalization process?
This is a tough question! There were aspects of the SHA Streetscape project that were very frustrating for some of the business owners. But probably harder was the fact that right as we were coming out of the streetscape project, we found ourselves in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and national shutdown. Nothing prepares you for that!
Q: Is there an anticipated completion date for the projects currently underway?
The anticipated completion date for Memorial Hall is fall, 2022. The anticipated completion date for 19 West Main is winter, 2022.
Q: What type of related developments do you foresee being spurred by this activity in the future?
We are already seeing other property owners start to spruce up their buildings — a new coat of paint, repaired front porches, etc., and we are seeing so much more foot traffic. We also hope to see more travelers from other parts of Maryland and beyond begin making Middletown a part of their itinerary.
Q: What lessons learned would you share with other communities and stakeholders seeking to embark on a similar effort?
First, I would say don’t be afraid to start small. It is better to be successful with a small project than to bite off more than you can chew. The Main Street program is not meant to result in overnight change. The second piece of advice I would give is to not worry what other communities are doing. The point is to promote whatever is unique about your community. And last, but not least…learn to take deep yoga breaths!
 The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) is an independent unit within the Executive branch of State government, and is administered by the Maryland Historical Trust, an agency of the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning).