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Subway in historic Ellicott City gets mixed reviews

John Fisher's decision to allow Subway to rent his shop on Ellicott City's Main Street came down to an old adage: "It's not personal, it's business."

"Why not?" said Fisher, who had six other applicants for the space at 8143 Main St. "You get somebody that's not a mom-and-pop operation. You get somebody that has a track record of success."

The new Subway, which will be the first food chain store in historic Ellicott City, will include a cafe that serves espresso drinks and sweets. The store is scheduled to open Aug.19, according to owners Bayo and Tayo Ibraheem, who live in Ellicott City and own three Subway shops in Baltimore.

"It's going to be a good addition, it's going to provide a lot of people with a healthier and cheaper alternative," Tayo Ibraheem said. "It will enhance what historic Main (Street) already has to offer."

But in old Ellicott City, where buildings date back to the late 1700s and many residents and retailers are fiercely protective of the area's historic integrity, that view is not unanimous. To some, the Subway signals the commercialization of what they consider a historic gem.

"The jury is still out on the Subway," said Tony Leicht, who owns October Guitars, a shop next door to the planned store. "The whole point of this area is the cool little stores and the independent places. It just seems an odd thing to have a chain down here."

Ellicott City's Main Street is lined with independently owned eateries and shops that sell boutique jewelry, toys, furniture and other trinkets and items. Before it became a regional attraction, Ellicott City was a mill town with a bustling railroad business.

Ellicott City resident Mary Kate Helm said the incoming chain is not in step with the town's tradition and nature.

"I like that this place is frozen in time. If I wanted to go to Subway, I would go to the food court," Helm said during a recent afternoon of shopping downtown with her sister.

Gretchen Shuey, owner of the Main Street coffee shop the Bean Hollow, agreed.

"I'm not excited about having a chain restaurant come to town," she said. "I don't think it brings anything new."

Shuey said that for a new restaurant to truly add to the area, it needs to be a "destination" — something that brings people into Ellicott City. With limited parking downtown, patrons who want to go to Subway will likely go to a more convenient location, she argued.

"People aren't going to come to town to go to Subway," she said.

Shuey said that while she expects to retain most of her customer base, she also is preparing for a slight loss of income. In 2008, when two new cafes/sandwich shops opened (both of which closed two years later) the Bean Hollow lost 2 percent of its business.

"They're going to bleed business off of us for sure," she said.

'We love the history, too'

Tayo Ibraheem said the new shop is designed to flow with the look and feel of historic Ellicott City.

"Our children go to school in Ellicott City, we live there, worship there," she said. "We love the history, too, and we would not do anything to tamper with that at all."

Bayo Ibraheem said the couple has spent four months and $300,000 renovating the space. They've replaced all the interior finishes, added two bathrooms and a hardwood floor, replaced the old air conditioning system and installed a stone wall.

"I don't see it hurting anybody else's business," Tayo Ibraheem said. "I think it will just be an addition that will help everybody else in the long run."

Dave Carney, owner of the Wine Bin, a boutique wine store on Main Street, said that while he's loyal to the Bean Hollow when it comes to coffee, he's excited about the Subway.

"I think the Subway is fabulous, actually," he said. "I have a 10-year-old and there's not one restaurant here that caters to my daughter."

Unlike Shuey, Carney said the Subway will fill a glaring gap in the historic district: an inexpensive dining option for families.

"It's affordable, healthy, quick," he said. "I don't think the sky is falling by having a Subway come."

Savage resident Susane Finucane, who spent a recent afternoon in historic Ellicott City with her three daughters, said she might visit downtown more often if it offered affordable dining options such as Subway.

"It's convenient," she said. "We'd probably go in there today and eat lunch if it were open because it's quick and affordable."

Other chains to follow?

But Lori McDermott, who has owned the Silver Arrow Fudge Shop on Main Street for 22 years, worries the Subway could bring other unwanted chains.

"Subway's not a good fit for this town," she said, adding that when chain stores enter an area "you start looking like everybody else."

Fisher countered that chains have worked in larger historic downtown areas in Maryland. He cited the city of Frederick, which is host to chain stores including Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Subway, Starbucks and Ben and Jerry's, and the city of Annapolis, which has a Starbucks.

"Have these people visited any place else? Have they gone to historic Frederick? Have they gone to historic Annapolis? Have they gone to historic Richmond?" he said. "It seems to me, chain stores seem to fit in pretty well there. Why is it that they won't fit in here?"

Additionally, Fisher believes that Subway, as part of a large corporation with a proven track record, has a better chance of surviving than an independently owned restaurant start up. In the past decade, at least a half-dozen eateries in the historic area have gone out of business.

That's why he chose the franchise over six other applicants.

"There were people that ... felt they could open up a sub shop or a pizza place," Fisher explained. "But I didn't feel comfortable tying myself up to somebody who had no previous record."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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