Williamsport, Md. sees surge of visitors and business growth

06/26/2023| Amanda Winters

Williamsport, Md. sees surge of visitors and business growth

06/26/2023 | Amanda Winters

Business is booming in Williamsport, Md. , with help from a local investment group, several new retail shops, and the opening of a new national park headquarters .

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park’s  headquarters officially relocated last fall, within walking distance to downtown Williamsport. The $15 million project was a true partnership project with support from Washington County, Town of Williamsport, State of Maryland, and National Park Service, and was led by the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO), bringing more than 50 jobs to the town.

C&O Canal Headquarters, photo by Patrick Siebert

Each year, the park brings more than 5 million visitors to the region supporting more than 1,360 jobs. In 2021, more than 480,000 of these visitors spent time in Williamsport, generating nearly $15 million in the local community.

Building on that economic boost in Western Maryland is an influx of new businesses opening around the town’s Main Street district.

Last spring saw several new businesses  locate downtown, including Cindy's Old Thyme Country; Get Right Barbershop; Lotus Moon Cafe; and Still Smokin BBQ. In the fall, Mama Lu Lu’s Diner hit the scene, and quickly nabbed the Best Dinner Award in Best of the Tristate 2022 . And this spring, Sprout: Plants & Things set up shop on Main Street for those seeking houseplant accessories and home decor, among others.

Maryland Commerce's Andrew Sargent celebrates the grand opening of Get Right Barbershop

“The one thing we immediately noticed when staff started returning [after the pandemic] was the amount of economic activity in town and the number of businesses opening up,” said John A. Noel, deputy superintendent for C&O Canal National Historical Park. “There’s a real buzz in the center of the city—it’s a draw for our park visitors and gives them choices on where to spend their time.”

Noel says he envisions Williamsport blossoming into a “destination” for the park’s visitors, who can now visit the town and enjoy the most complete canal experience available in the park. For thru-riders and hikers, the town is quickly becoming a must-stop destination and overnight stay. The burst of new business has also been beneficial for the park staff, who now have multiple shops just a few blocks away from the C&O headquarters.

“It’s more than just campers inside the park…there is an entire other segment of visitors that have come to the park for their vacation. They want to stay in bed and breakfasts and hotels while spending time exploring the small towns along the length of the park,” said Noel. “The amount of activity [here] has been really quite remarkable.”

According to DC News Now, Williamsport is one of Maryland’s several rural communities experiencing economic growth  after the pandemic. A portion of this growth can be attributed to Department of Housing and Community Development programs that support the economic enhancement of main streets throughout the state, and the Maryland Rural Development Corporation , a nonprofit that serves rural and low-income households and communities.

“Over the past two years, more than $343,000 has been invested in the community through private contributions and the state’s Community Legacy Program,” said Kathyrn Gratton, main street specialist for the Maryland Rural Development Corporation and former Main Street manager for Williamsport. “We are looking to go even further with that this year…with the potential for $150,000 more.”

Funding through DHCD’s Community Legacy Program  goes towards projects located in Sustainable Communities. Williamsport received its sustainable designation in 2016 and has since utilized the program for exterior renovations including retaining walls, sidewalks, porches, and other street-facing façade improvements. There are currently well over 100 Sustainable Communities throughout the state.

Maryland Commerce's Andrew Sargent celebrates the grand opening of Mama Lu Lu's Diner

“The entire town qualifies as a Sustainable Community, and funding can be used on any of the properties within the town boundaries,” said Gratton. “Right now we’re mainly focused on the Main Street area  and making sure downtown is beautiful.”

A significant reason for Williamsport’s revitalization is Port 44  – an investment group run by five local women. The group is leading the charge for town renovations, with nearly two dozen properties in their portfolio, and hoping to make downtown more attractive for residents and C&O Canal visitors alike.

“When I moved back to Williamsport, I bought our family farm back from the developer and turned it into a bed & breakfast and wedding venue,” said Selena Wilkes, co-founder and CEO of Port 44. “A gentleman in town was selling his building and saw what I did with my property and barn. He said, ‘I think you should buy my building. You have the vision and knowledge to turn this town around.’”

From there, Selena and her sister Lettie decided to start up the female-led investment company with three other local residents and purchase properties in need of renovations. They knew something had to change in Williamsport to bring people and businesses back to their hometown, and they planned to start the positive shift in the community.

The ladies of Port 44

To date, Port 44 has purchased 22 buildings and helped bring in several businesses to boost economic development in the community, with more on the way including a rooftop restaurant and bar, bicycle shop, coffee and ice cream shop, health hub, interior design store, and outdoors store. Above the commercial spaces are luxury loft apartments to attract residents to quality living in the downtown district.

“People have seen what we’ve done and they’re happy with the progress we’ve made. Not only have we invested a lot of our own money in this town as a team, but we also have some great Williamsport community members who want to help get the mission accomplished,” she explains. Selena says that the community has played a major role in these renovations, with a grassroots approach. No investment is too large or too small—people are interested and want to be involved.

“It takes a lot of grit and determination and hard work—but if you don’t have your local community behind you, then it is a very tough road,” she said. “It's all about giving back to the community, making our place a better place, and living a better quality of life.”

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