Interview with Tracy Ward, Executive Director of Easton Economic Development Corporation

Interview with Tracy Ward, Executive Director of Easton Economic Development Corporation

Tracy Ward

Interview with Tracy Ward, Executive Director of Easton Economic Development Corporation

EEDC: Before we start, how about a little background on our own Easton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC)?
Tracy Ward: Sure. In 2013, despite strong economic recoveries in urban areas, rural towns and counties were lagging.  A regional economist had developed an economic development strategic action plan for Talbot County and recommended the formation of a non-profit economic development corporation that would encourage public/private partnerships to address this issue.  So, the Town of Easton established the EEDC, a board of Directors was formed, and a mission was identified to “drive economic vitality fostering a healthy quality of life for all generations.”

Three primary goals were established based on that mission:  1) Create an environment that promotes investment in Easton, 2) Connect the heart of downtown to Easton’s waterfront through the redevelopment of Port Street and Easton Point, and 3) Establish and support the distribution of locally grown food products to wholesale markets.

 EEDC: Hundreds of people were engaged in the creation of the Port Street Small Area Master Plan .  What is the status of the Port Street/Easton Point redevelopment project? 

Tracy Ward: It first began with community involvement. There was a very clear message that they wanted to see robust investment in public spaces, including a large waterfront park, investments in streetscape infrastructure along Port Street, and strong linkages to downtown, ensuring that both downtown and the waterfront are enhanced.  From this feedback, the Port Street Small Area Plan was created.

Once the Town of Easton’s Planning and Zoning Commission established the regulatory framework that would guide the build-out of Easton Point, the private market responded, and we have seen investments in property acquisition where we anticipate redevelopment over the next decade.

EEDC: That sounds like exciting things will be happening in the future. Anything that the community can enjoy today?

Tracy Ward: The Town of Easton has completed the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Tred Avon at the end of Glenwood Avenue, connecting it to the Town of Easton’s extensive bike and walking trails.  In my opinion, the view from the middle of the bridge is one of the prettiest water views in the County, and I’m always astounded by the birdlife that I see there.  Of course, the Town has committed to creating a sizeable on-water park, which will feature passive green space, as well as areas for recreation.

In the end, I anticipate that Easton Point will be essential to the Town of Easton and Talbot County as a whole. It will not only provide Easton the waterfront draw that it has lacked as a quintessential Eastern Shore town, but it will also give the citizens of Easton the necessary “smart growth” that will generate new a new tax base for its future.

EEDC: You’ve talked a lot about Easton Point.  What about Port Street, specifically the area on Port Street between Washington Street and the Parkway?

Tracy Ward: The Board of Directors of the EEDC has asked me to spend focused time on this area, and I have done so for the past year.  The successful redevelopment of Easton Point depends on the success of Port Street and the neighborhoods surrounding Port Street as a whole.  To that end, there have been some wonderful advancements in this area.

Our monthly newsletter, Waypoint, has been tracking the redevelopment projects in this neighborhood, including the recent development of the BAAM gymnasium, the redevelopment of the Post 77, and of course, the construction of the new elementary school.  In addition to supporting these important projects, we have also been supportive of the notion of adding housing density in this community, both affordable and market-rate units, as well as the redevelopment of existing housing.  Net Zero Housing Article.  The community has also been very clear that they would like to attract a grocery store to this neighborhood.  We do have several parcels that are certainly large enough to accommodate a grocery store if the private market agrees.

EEDC: You mentioned one of the goals of EEDC was to establish and support the distribution of locally grown food products to wholesale markets. That would be the project known as Chesapeake Harvest, right?  Can you give us an update?

Tracy Ward: Yes!  Chesapeake Harvest was awarded a three-year grant from USDA to conduct food safety training and marketing and promotion for Eastern Shore grown produce.  The grant period ended last year, and we conducted a final review of our accomplishments at a public meeting in December.  View report.

USDA also awarded us a grant to expand our food safety training to farmers, and that grant will be completed by the end of August.  Through our food safety training, we have engaged over 1,000 farmers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and many have been able to safely sell their products into wholesale markets.  An added benefit to this program is that we also instruct new food safety trainees so that they can continue the work on the ground in their communities.

EEDC: Besides EEDC, we have at least three other agencies, not including the State of Maryland, providing essential economic development services to Easton. These groups are The Town of Easton, Discover Easton, and Talbot County Tourism and Economic Development. Should I be confused?

Tracy Ward: Not at all.  Each economic development organization does have a specific role to play in ensuring a healthy economic development ecosystem for the citizens of the greater Easton area.  We all work extremely closely together and ensure that our strategic plans are clearly articulated so that our work dovetails with one another as effectively as possible.

EEDC: How has COVID-19 impacted your activities and projects? 

Tracy Ward: Like everyone, we needed to pivot quickly to respond to these unprecedented events.  Many of our partner agencies, like Discover Easton and Talbot County Economic Development and Tourism, are on the front lines for assisting the businesses in need, and we are there to support their efforts. The Town continues to examine how they can respond through regulatory action to improve business conditions.  As an example, the Town voted this week to close portions of downtown to facilitate outdoor dining.

At the EEDC, we focused on communication and immediately launched our Weekly News that has provided a heavily curated assortment of critical information to our businesses and citizens.  {Note:  The Weekly News will now be delivered on Wednesdays instead of Mondays}.

As for our food safety programming, which involved on-site educational seminars, it is now being delivered via Zoom.  In the future, we hope to introduce video capture so that our educational seminars have a longer shelf life.  So, for the first few months, we have been very focused on steadying the ship as much as possible.  All of that said, however, I have continued to advance the projects that we have in our pipeline.  The excellent news is that we are seeing many, many important glimmers of hope that suggest that our projects will continue, and Easton will continue to be the robust capital of the Eastern Shore that it has always been.

EEDC: You can’t leave us hanging like that!  What glimmers of hope can you share?

Tracy Ward: I’ve been extremely heartened by some strong indicators.  While we remain concerned about the estimated 600 people that lost their jobs in Talbot County, we know that there are hundreds of open positions out there.  The Workforce Investment Board, one of our many partners, won a grant to provide technical assistance to individuals seeking new career pathways, so we hope that we can match people to these employment opportunities.

There are several real estate redevelopment projects under consideration by private investors, and I am happy to report that most of them have continued despite COVID-19. Of course, we also know that the real estate market, in general, is very, very strong in Talbot County.  Houses have been selling at a brisk pace as people seek to get away from dense urban areas.  With the advancement in technology, we believe that many of these new residents to Easton will remain here.  Already, we also know that most of the short-term rentals have been occupied by long term occupants who may choose to stay permanently as well.

Our farmers and food producers are tuning into eager new markets, as families choose to purchase their food directly, tapping into a significant strength of this region while avoiding the potentially higher risk grocery store experience.

The Town is focusing their energy to help our businesses as much as possible, and we can expect both the Town and Discover Easton to find new innovative ways to activate downtown.  The Town of Easton announced its new industrial park at the groundbreaking of Mistletoe Hall Commerce Business Park this week, providing an excellent example of how we can continue to advance business interests during this challenging time.

For book lovers, Easton will see its second bookstore open this Summer, and for foodies, we will see a new market open that will feature wine, meats, cheeses, and pasta.

EEDC: It does sound hopeful.

Tracy Ward:  It is.  I’m encouraged in general by the prevailing response of the community at large.  Talbot County has one of the lowest infection rates of COVID-19 out of all the counties in Maryland.  That results from an informed citizenry that not only cares but is also resilient.