Q&A With Patapsco Heritage Greenway Executive Director Mary Catherine Cochran

Howard County native Mary Catherine Cochran’s impact on the preservation of Howard County’s unique history and environment began in 1999 with Vision 2020, an exercise that drafted goals for the county. She served on the Stewardship of Resources committee, which created a sustainable vision for the care of environmental, agricultural and historic resources.

Cochran authored the 2020 plan for historic preservation at a time when Howard County had grown nearly 150% in the previous 20 years; within that span, it lost approximately one-half of its historic sites to demolition, deterioration or development, while many remaining sites were permanently compromised by encroachment on their historic settings.

In 2000, she fulfilled one of the key strategic goals of the plan by founding Preservation Howard County (PHC); in the ensuing years, the nonprofit has saved historic structures, successfully advocated for the implementation of preservation legislation and educated citizens about the county’s rich historic resources.

In 2015, Cochran continued her work in preservation and environmental stewardship when she assumed management of the newly-established Patapsco Heritage Area. Since, she has built a foundation for Patapsco Heritage Greenway (PHG), securing funding, building community partnerships and shifting the organization from a volunteer-based to an employee-based organization.

Today, PHG manages more than 1,500 volunteers and annually removes more than 25 tons of trash from the Patapsco Watershed. It sponsors free history and natural history programs for residents that tell the story of our rivers, roads and rails, and their impact on our local history and our national story. Under Cochran’s leadership, PHG instituted a mini-grant program to encourage other nonprofits to create preservation and heritage tourism programs.

This year, PHG’s Stream Watchers identified two critical sewer leaks just hours after the devastating Ellicott City flood as it organized volunteers to assist property and business owners with cleanups, historic district processes, historic tax credit questions and preservation programs.

Cochran also volunteers as the state legislative chair of the Maryland Heritage Areas Coalition; earlier in her career, after losing her young husband to cancer, she served as director of the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center. Most recently, Cochran, daughter of former Howard County Executive Edward Cochran, was tabbed for the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is set for March 9.

What spurred your interest in preserving the history of Howard County?

I’m not sure. I had great social studies teachers at Atholton High School, including Lee Preston, but I can’t say I was a great student of history. I grew up on an old farm called Holly Hill, and that gave me an appreciation for wavy window glass, doors that stick and old barns.

I’ve always appreciated the differing perspectives that people bring to their history, and history in general; however, I was more interested in the history of our barns than our manors, in our industry than our wars, in our common people than our dignitaries.

What challenges did you face when founding PHC?

Simply that there was no countywide organization that could advocate for the preservation of our history, as well as the various structures that are part of it. Building coalitions with other heritage groups, such as the Howard County Historical Society, The Columbia Archives and Historic Ellicott City, was key to our success.

What was your role in the relocation of the Enchanted Forest exhibits?

As has been the case with many of PHC’s projects, we were able to connect resources to find a solution to the issue. Former Howard County Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin brought the struggling resources to our attention when they could not be saved in their original location. Our treasurer, Martha Clark, thought she could find a home for them on her farm, so we began conversations with the owner of the shopping center.

I do recall giving Mother Goose a push to get her moving right. However, it was an army of volunteers, led by a visionary farmer and an agreeable shopping center owner, that made the move of so many of the Enchanted Forest figures to Clark’s Elioak Farm possible.

What is the PHG and how is it funded?

It’s the managing entity of the Patapsco Heritage Area, and it’s funded by the state of Maryland through Program Open Space, as well as by county grants, foundation grants and individual memberships and donations.

What area does the Patapsco Heritage Area encompass?

Maryland’s 13th Certified Heritage Area connects the former town of Daniels — much of which was washed away in 1972, by Hurricane Agnes — to Elkridge. Towns of Howard County and Baltimore County, including Ellicott City, Oella, Catonsville and Relay fall within the heritage area boundaries. Every Maryland county now has a Certified Heritage Area.

The 26-mile stretch is a place to experience a unique aspect of Maryland’s history, including state and national firsts in transportation, early industry and conservation. It’s the only heritage area in either county and much of the Patapsco Valley State Park also falls within its boundaries. The first Maryland park, it’s one of the state’s most used parks. During summer weekends, the park closes regularly due to capacity issues, especially around the Avalon area, on Route 1.

Designation as a heritage area provides funding opportunities to organizations and governments through Maryland Heritage Area Grants. Last year, more than $2.7 million in grants were awarded to the 13 certified heritage areas. In addition, the Patapsco Heritage Area offers mini-grants to assist small organizations with projects, such as installation of interpretive signage for Underground Railroad sites in Ellicott City, self-guided art gallery tours, and nature and history programming

The PHG is holding the Patapsco Summit on Feb. 7, with Councilman Jon Weinstein and Councilman Tom Quirk from Baltimore County. What do you hope to accomplish, given that you have the counties working together?

A conversation from Heritage Area stakeholders about the strengths and opportunities in the Pataspco Valley, a holistic view of the Heritage Area and more about mutual goals and objectives, such as preservation of our historic resources, the economic health of our main streets and the environmental health of the watershed.

What was PHG’s position on removing the Bloede Dam?

Bloede Dam is a historic resource and it was difficult to support the removal of the world’s first underwater hydroelectric dam. However, the inherent dangers of the dam, including recent drownings and the overwhelming evidence that removing the dam would eliminate barriers to upstream fish migration and create a more stable aquatic ecosystem, made it easier to support the final decision.

How can the $2.7 million in Heritage Area Grants that is available to nonprofits and government entities be used in the reconstruction of Ellicott City?

Heritage Area partners, including nonprofits and government entities, are eligible to receive Maryland Heritage Area Authority (MHAA) grants. MHAA grants are up to $50,000 in matching funds for projects and up to $100,000 for capital projects. The grants can be used for restoration; stabilization of public structures, such as the B&O railroad museum and the Visitor’s Center; rebuilding of stream channel walls; repair of historic bridges; and improvement to streetscapes, for example.

What’s the best way for the public to get a comprehensive look at the effect of the flood?

Studies are still underway to analyze the timeline, the water’s course and force, and impact of the flood. A comprehensive view of all aspects should be available at the conclusion of that report.

Other good resources the public can use to learn more about the flood and its effects are the Howard County flood recovery site, which is available at www.howardcountymd.gov/Departments/Ellicott-City-Flood-Recovery; and the One Recovery Project, at http://oneecrecoveryproject.org.

Ellicott City is the largest unincorporated county seat in the U.S., which meant the county had to respond to the flood. Do you think the town will ever be incorporated?

I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. Howard County (and Baltimore County) have no incorporated towns or municipalities, relying instead on county planning authority.

What’s your take on the progress in Downtown Ellicott City today?

In the days following the flood, our organization mobilized to assist property owners, ensure that buildings were not demolished, identify sewer leaks and clean up flood debris. It was an intense period of emergent activity, a reaction. That we lost no buildings was amazing, especially given the essential goal of safety first. We thought up to nine buildings would be lost.

But know that Ellicott City is still very much in the recovery phase. Although some businesses have reopened and progress is underway to rebuild and restore structures, there is much work to be completed. This is the time for pro-action, for vision, for aiming high.

How do you think that the PHG can be part of the vision for downtown Ellicott City that was recently presented by the Urban Land Institute (ULI)?

The ULI Technical Assistance Panel’s vision is for looking at the Patapsco Valley, as a whole, which is an important aspect of our mission. Historically, the river has united communities, and the opportunity is there for a united vision for the watershed — for the environment, for the historic and cultural resources, and for main street community vitality.

What do you see as the most important accomplishment of your father’s when he served as county executive?

My father and mother modeled civic engagement to all of their six children. Ensuring that children are brought up to be engaged in their communities is an enduring gift to the future. In terms of accomplishments during his years as an elected public servant, I would say that I am most proud of his work to eradicate discrimination, increase equal opportunity and protect and promote human rights. That’s pretty awesome stuff for a man of his generation.