Harford businesses benefit from 'House of Cards'

"They've been a big part of my business," carpet supplier says of "House of Cards"

When the fourth season of "House of Cards" premieres on Netflix Friday, pay particular attention to the wall colors and, if you can, try to catch a glimpse of the floors. Look closely at the furniture.

The paint on the walls and carpet on the floors most likely came from Harford County businesses. Some of the unique furniture pieces probably did, too.

While the larger pieces of furniture weren't bought locally, the materials to make them were.

Hundreds of local businesses have benefited from "House of Cards," where set decorator Tiffany Zappulla has a $60,000 budget for each episode to decorate, which translates to $780,000 every season.

With four seasons done and a fifth soon to begin, that's $3.9 million just for set decorating, and many of the sets, such as rooms inside the White House and aboard Air Force One, have been erected inside the Joppa warehouse that serves as the "House of Cards" production base.

Decorating is one of just 30 departments that produce the series. Production of the first three seasons brought in $330 million to Maryland. The impact of the fourth season, which just wrapped production in December, has not been tallied, Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, said.

Nothing that's done on the sets is small, Zappulla said. She'll buy 30 to 40 yards of material for curtains. Paint is bought 30 gallons a time for one room and carpeting is bought sometimes in miles.

The local vendors and the "House of Cards" staff have a great working relationship, according to Zappulla. The production company spends millions of dollars with local companies, trying to keep business as local as possible – if not in Harford County, then in Maryland.

And the local vendors bend over backward to keep their well-paying, frequent and high-profile customer satisfied.

"One of the great things about our vendors is how receptive they are to our needs," Zappulla said. "Having a local business, there's a level of pride for them as business owners. And from my end, there's a level of respect for them that they go the extra mile for us. We couldn't do it without businesses like them."

Denny Lee, of Carpets by Denny Lee in Edgewood, carries around a file, full of job orders just from "House of Cards." He says he never had a folder for the business he expected from base realignment, or BRAC, during the previous decade.

"They've been a big part of my business," Lee said during a recent tour of the set. "The trickle down in the economy really helped me."

In January 2012, Lee was still trying to reposition himself from the 2008 turndown in the economy. He had to cut his staff to three people.

Then, he began working with a local Realtor, who was renting space to the "House of Cards" production company, Media Rights Capital. They needed floor covering in the office.

"Through working on their office space, I got to meet the designers, the construction managers, and it blossomed into a folder two inches thick of job orders," Lee said.

Not many business owners can say "I carpeted Air Force One today" or "I put that carpet in the Roosevelt Room" at the White House. But Lee can, sort of.

"My customers get a kick out of it," he said. "It's a nice ice-breaker, when they know you're working on a show like this. They think, 'If he can do that, it's just my house, he can do my house.'"

Adrianne Kotula, of WPS Paint & Decorating Center in Emmorton, agreed. Zappulla went into WPS one day looking for a quality product from a local store and found what she was looking for, and more.

"They'll blend colors for us. I say more blue, less blue, more shiny, less shiny," Zappulla said.

WPS displays the colors that are used on "House of Cards."

"People don't come in looking for those colors, but if they see it and think it's good enough for a TV show," then they might buy it for themselves," Kotula said.

The paint and wallpaper really sets the tone for the show, Kotula said.

"As the character gets darker, so does the paint," she said.

Paint also helps save money.

In the real White House in Washington, D.C., the lower portions of many of the walls are made of marble. At the White House in Joppa, they're just regular drywall painted to look like marble.

The only place where real marble in is used in Joppa is for the main entrance.

When Zappulla is buying paint, she's buying it in bulk – as much as 30 gallons of paint at a time, and that's just for one room. And WPS, which also supplied HBO's "VEEP" when that show filmed in Maryland, can get them what they need.

"Each year, our quantities have gone up. In one year we were up 28 percent," Marci Kotula, who is Adrianne's mother, said. "They're a big player to us, they're important to us."

As a small business, when new home-building fell off, so did theirs.

"BRAC was supposed to be a savior. 'House of Cards' has filled part of that void we had there," Marci Kotula said.

It's a little harder for Jennifer Lane, owner of Bella Patri Home Furnishings & Accessories in Jarrettsville, to see her pieces on-set, though she does sometimes.

Zappulla often turns to her when she's looking for a specific piece, to be used in a certain spot in a certain room. And they'll get it to her.

"To come across a business like Bella Patri has been wonderful for us," Zappulla said.

She'll check their website, which is updated constantly, then call if she sees something she likes and ask if they still have it. If so, someone will be there to pick it up in a few hours. Sometimes an interesting piece comes in and Lane thinks it might be something Zappulla would like.

"I know them by telephone, not in person," Zappulla joked.

Lane's business is a little different than WPS or Denny Lee Carpets. She is selling items her customers' consignments, and they're usually happy to know their pieces have been sold to a television show, Lane said.

The vendors say they watch the show.

Lee said his product is hard to really see, "unless someone gets shot" and they're lying on the carpet. He watches an entire season at a time, but said he's not really looking at the carpet, "I'm watching the show."

Dawn Vonnordeck, who works at Bella Patri, said she almost has to watch the show twice – once for the story and once to look for their pieces.

Lee said he was at a meeting once with a contingent from Gov. Larry Hogan's office and "House of Cards" star Kevin Spacey was talking about what a great place Maryland is to film because it has everything. It's a small state, he recalls Spacey saying, with the Chesapeake Bay and other historical parts.

"But if the show needs to shoot a farm scene in Iowa, they can go to a cornfield in half an hour. If they were in New York, he said, they'd have to load up the trucks and drive two hours both ways," Lee recalled Spacey saying. "It grabbed your attention, when he was talking about the show."

The Holiday Inn Express at the I-95 and Route 24 interchange had just opened when "House of Cards" was preparing for its first season. The production company had a really short window to build the sets. All the local crews had already been hired and the company had to bring in more from other states because they were working 24 hours a day.

"Right out of the gate, from day one, they were 100 percent occupancy," Lee said.

Even the casting calls for show extras bring business to Harford County. The first one at the Bel Air Armory on Main Street attracted 1,500 people, according to Trish Heidenreich, economic development director for the Town of Bel Air.

"The restaurants were packed, there were feet on the street, people going into shops," Heidenreich said.

Subsequent casting calls at the armory had attracting people from across the country, hoping to get a minute or two of fame on camera.

"When you think about Harford County and the Town of Bel Air, people coming and seeing our community, that's like tourism at its finest," she said. "It's been an incredible boom and many of our businesses definitely see an uptick in sales when we have casting calls."

The film industry, Heidenreich said, is one that uses an unusually large number of vendors.

"Film uses just about everything. When creating a production, you're replicating life and you have to find things to replicate a person's daily life," she said. "People have no concept of what's involved and how far-reaching it is in terms of how it helps the state."

"House of Cards" has been in Harford for four seasons and is returning for a fifth. Besides local vendors, the production crew has a strong local base as well.

"It's a transient business, but we have a very local crew," Zappulla said.

Many of the people on the crew lived elsewhere when they started working on "House of Cards," have become locals, some in Harford, some in Maryland, and they, too, have become investors in their community, many patronizing the same vendors as the show.

Eventually, the show will stop airing and production will cease. But what's been created at the set location, as well as connections in the community, will remain.

"The infrastructure we've created here is phenomenal," Zappulla said. "We've done as much as we can right here. We've built it and we just need it to keep going."

The hope is, Gerbes said, that once "House of Cards" is over, another series, show or film comes in and picks up right where the Underwoods and company leave off.

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