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Baltimore County spends millions to revive downtown Essex

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John Lee
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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski describes plans for downtown Essex.

Essex, the waterfront community on Baltimore County’s east side, has been declining for years. Steel manufacturing jobs vanished after Bethlehem Steel shut down in 2003, but some aerospace players are still active in the region. It is struggling with one of the highest crime rates in the county. Population peaked in the 1990s when there were 40,800 residents then dropped for years until a small uptick when the 2020 U.S. Census estimated 40,500 residents.

One year after launching a multi-million dollar plan to turn Essex around, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said he is confident that incremental improvements will add up.

“I think the long-term impacts are going to take some time for us to see how these investments are moving the needle for Essex,” Olszewski said.

He cited several examples of what is being done now to save Essex. A social worker has a post at the local library, the county is ramping up a program to eradicate rats, and there's a $400,000 budget to replace benches, fix sidewalks and plant trees along Eastern Boulevard, Essex’s struggling main drag.

“We know that street trees have proven benefits for communities that go beyond just the aesthetics,” Olszewski said. “They draw in more foot traffic, they increase revenue for businesses, they improve our air quality.”

The sidewalks on Eastern Boulevard are crumbling and uneven. There are old tree boxes from a bygone era that have been filled in with asphalt.

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John Lee
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In downtown Essex there is a 'tree box' on the sidewalk where a tree once stood but it has now been covered with asphalt.

The streetscape project is expected to be done within a year. It is being paid for by the state, which also is providing $1 million to be used to plan for a new foot bridge and sidewalks along Marlyn Ave. and MD-702.

According to Dori Henry, Olszewski’s Deputy Chief of Staff, the county also will be dedicating $500,000 in American Rescue Plan money for grants to non-profit organizations that serve the Essex area.

When Olszewski announced the plan to help Essex last year, he said it would be the first-of-its-kind sustained recovery for a community that had the county’s highest murder rate and the most applications for the county’s eviction prevention program.

“We sort of have this fork in the road where you’re investing in turning a community back to the real opportunity that it has versus letting it slip,” Olszewsk said at the time.

Now Olszewski said the county is analyzing data to figure out what services Essex needs.

“As you start to see the fruits of the labor, whether it is programming or infrastructure investments, you’re going to start seeing this all roll out in the year ahead,” Olszewski said.

Republican Del. Ric Metzgar, who represents Essex in the Maryland General Assembly said, “Our aged communities need a facelift. They need a lot of things. We are going to get this done.”

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Baltimore County
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A map of crime across Baltimore County shows Essex as the highest concentration.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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