Public, private, and club goods in downtown Ellicott City

4 minute read

Saturday I went down to downtown Ellicott City for the fall festival, which turned out to be a much more popular event than I thought it would be. (I had to park on Rogers Avenue a couple of hundred yards up from Main Street.) If I were a normal person I’d be posting about the events and including some photos; however I couldn’t help filtering my experiences through the perspective of my previous post on government and public goods (not to mention private goods and club goods—I skipped discussing common goods for reasons noted in a comment to the post).

I purchased some private goods during the outing, both knick-knacks (downtown Ellicott City of course being known for its small shops) and food and drink; nothing out of the ordinary there. A more interesting example of private goods were the four Beatles-themed rooms (John, Paul, George, and Ringo) in the soon-to-open Obladi hotel, which I toured during its open house. It’s really quite a lovely place, and I very much hope they’re able to make a go of it.

I also experienced three club goods (or potential club goods), of which only one was actually operated as a true excludable good. The first was a visit to the B&O Railroad Ellicott City Station Museum, which charges a ticket fee for entrance and is thus truly excludable. After being operated for many years by Historic Ellicott City, Inc., the Ellicott City station is now part of the Baltimore-based B&O Railroad Museum, which is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization that receives some government funding but appears to derive most of its support from private donations, ticket sales, and other sources. (Based on the museum’s Federal tax return or Form 990, available from GuideStar, it appears that in 2009 the museum received about 650K in government funding out of a total budget of about 3.25M, or about 20% of its revenue.)

The other places I visited were the Ellicott City Firehouse Museum and the Thomas Isaac log cabin, neither of which charge admission. The reason for this seems pretty clear: both are very small facilities (just one room), and there’s not enough in either of them to justify charging an admission ticket. In the absence of ticket revenue it’s doubtful that either facility could ever survive as a stand-alone operation and be able to employ even a minimal staff and maintain the properties; both are now owned by the Howard County government. (The firehouse was always a county facility, while the log cabin was initially run by Historic Ellicott City, Inc., prior to being transferred to the county.)

In my prior post I expressed a preference for club goods to be provided by the private sector. What justifies government involvement in the case of the firehouse museum and the log cabin? I think the best justification is the historical significance of the properties in the context of Ellicott City and Howard County. One can imagine instead a small private museum that contains a particular individual’s idiosyncratic collection—say bottle caps, or toy soldiers, or whatever—but has no larger significance. I can’t see much justification for govenment funding of such an enterprise, unless perhaps it makes a major contribution to the local economy—but if that were the case, then private support from local businesses would seem to be a better source of funding.

The final example came to me as I was walking down Main Street and noticing all the overhead wires marring the view. (They also intrude upon the otherwise picturesque Ellicott City winter scene that graces the cover of the FY2011 Howard County budget.) I didn’t mention it in my previous post, but the beauty of the natural landscape or of a built environment is also a public good: We can all enjoy the view together, an enjoyment no one can deny us.

However like other public goods this one can be under-provisioned, and I think the view in Ellicott City is a good example of such: Removing wires from the scenery requires doing this for most if not all of Ellicott City, since it’s not possible to route utility lines underground for just one frontage. An individual property owner can justify improvements to their own building that might attract more customers and tenants; however they certainly can’t justify paying for utility work for all the buildings on Main Street and having all the other property owners be free riders.

Of the many possible solutions to providing public goods, the conventional and obvious one in this case is for the Howard County government to pay the costs of putting utility lines underground, either from general funds or by imposing a special assessment on all affected property owners. An unconventional approach, though it’s not clear if it would be feasible in this case, would be some sort of private joint action among property owners to try to reduce the free rider problem, for example, by entering into an assurance contract to contribute funds to the project if (and only if) enough other property owners kicked in their share.

Whether the streetscape of Ellicott City will ever be free of overhead wires, through government funding or otherwise, is an open question. Putting utility lines underground is mentioned as a possible action in the 2003 Ellicott City master plan (see page 22 in particular), but it appears to be in the context of an overall proposal to build a parking garage and eliminate on-street parking (in order to allow better access to do the work?). Considering that the question of what to do about parking in Ellicott City appears to be up in the air, it’s unclear if anything will be done about overhead wiring in the historic district for the foreseeable future. I invite readers who might know more about this to comment below.