Main Street businesses rise from the rubble one year after devastating Ellicott City flood

Main Street businesses rise from the rubble one year after devastating flood

On July 30, 2016, disastrous flood waters ripped through about 50 Main Street businesses and killed two people in Ellicott City. As the water curved down Main Street in the historic shopping district, Sweet Elizabeth Jane clothing boutique was at the bend inside Caplan's department store. Everything inside washed away, leaving shredded wooden boards and debris in piles of mud and a large tree inside the left storefront window.

As the one-year anniversary of the flood approaches, Sweet Elizabeth Jane owner Tammy Beideman and general manager Mariah Cohee peered inside their former location last week – their first real look at the storefront since last summer.

They and several other retailers agree that the Main Street business climate has changed, but the flood was an opportunity to start from scratch and come back stronger.

Main Street suffered, said Maureen Sweeney-Smith, executive director of Ellicott City Partnership. Flood damage was estimated by the county to be in excess of $22 million, with nearly $11 million in damage to public infrastructure.

According to last year's economic impact study, the flood reduced economic activity on Main Street to $67.2 million, including 151 jobs lost and county revenue declining by $1.3 million.

Sweeney-Smith said the Ellicott City Partnership raised nearly $2 million in flood relief funds for residents, merchants and property owners, and no-interest and low-interest loans were provided by the Small Business Administration, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Retail specialist Garrett Glover has provided one-on-one counseling services and retail expertise to 70 Ellicott City businesses. Glover served as the corporate operations manager of Clyde's Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., from 1986 to 1993.

To keep Glover on board after funding runs out in September, Sweeney-Smith said she's working to raise the necessary $100,000.

"He has made an incredible difference in how we're rebuilding the town," she said. "Two-thirds of our merchants have met with him [and] in a couple of cases, he has doubled merchants' sales over last year."

Glover said his process tailors business improvement strategies to merchants' individual needs. Disaster relief and recovery began the day after the flood and by December 2016, 52 businesses had reopened.

In January, Glover began the economic revitalization phase to teach store owners how to revitalize, survive and sustain their business operations. Since this phase began, Glover said 95 businesses, including 15 new businesses, have opened as well as eight new businesses with lease agreements preparing to open.

Nineteen businesses did not return, including Cacao Lane, Johnnie's Bistro on Main, Boliwalou and Vintage Vault.

Before the flood, merchants were still using a 1980s business model, Sweeney-Smith said. Business owners bought merchandise at auctions and showcases and then hiked up the price 200 to 300 percent for sale at their stores. The Internet made this model less effective with cheaper pricing, she said.

During a market survey on Ellicott City, which Glover did in 2014, he said he saw the shopping strip had problems with industry mix; there was no healthy assortment of businesses but mostly antique shops.

"We used the flood as an opportunity to work with the property owners to put in a better mix of industries," Glover said.

He said he worked with existing businesses on "company culture, which is reflected in the branding, merchandising, inventory, interior, ambiance and customer service and relations," to develop a 21st-century business model.

Company culture allows customers to see a contemporary and progressive business, which ignites their interest to explore and support, he said.

Glover provided recommendations to business owners on merchandising and rebranding to make each store unique. Working from the outside in, Glover said he views the business through the customer's eyes by observing the cleanliness of the sidewalk outside the store and moving in to the storefront.

Donna Sanger, who owns Park Ridge Trading Company with her daughter, Julia, continues to meet with Glover to discuss new strategies. Sanger opened her culinary storefront 17 days before the flood, and sold an assortment of olive oils, spices and sauces in addition to custom jewelry and toys.

Park Ridge Trading ditched the latter items at Glover's recommendation, Sanger said, instead moving into a specific niche of culinary items.

"His suggestions have been dead-on," Sanger said. "We've added some products that we didn't carry before, like coffee and tea, and we started making our own custom spiced blends. We're trying to focus on things that are hard to find anywhere else. I was really skeptical about the changes initially, but they have been very successful."

"You need to be open to the idea of change," added Julia Sanger. "What this store started as pre-flood is very different from what it is now."

Walk-in traffic has increased two to three times since last year, said Sweeney-Smith, who has made a game of counting customers' shopping bags on the street.

A tough return

Owners of returning businesses, like Sweet Elizabeth Jane and Joan Eve, said Main Street was always their home, but they faced their fair share of heartache coming back after the flood.

Sweet Elizabeth Jane reopened on Black Friday inside a large two-story building at 8125 Main St., where Ellicott City's first Ford dealership opened in the 1920s. The building is located between Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant and the Howard County Welcome Center.

The Caplan's department store building – the shop's former location – now operates as the Miss Fit women's gym, which opened earlier this month.

"I love the new space," said Beideman, who opened the original boutique in 2011. "But, it doesn't feel like home yet. We got it and 72 hours later we opened the doors. We haven't stopped since."

She and Cohee wanted to return, but didn't immediately know if Main Street would be ready, spending their first week post-flood visiting potential locations in Annapolis, Fells Point and Hampden.

"I knew if Sweet Elizabeth Jane was going to make it at all, we had to be up and running by Black Friday to get our holiday season in," Beideman said.

Hundreds of volunteers made that possible in November when they formed an assembly line inside the business to mark thousands of items for purchasing.

"My faith in people is so much greater. I didn't think I would be here 13 months ago," Beideman said. "I think this journey has been the hardest year of my life and I know that once we get passed this, I will be able to look back and realize how much I've learned."

Cohee said the past year was emotional; for example, the growing pains of having a larger space and staff.

"I think the hardest thing about being back is that people don't understand how hard it has been," she said. "Even though it looks like we're fully functioning and we're back, we're still learning and growing within this space."

Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles, another business ravaged last year, reopened July 9 further down Main Street from its original location. The antique shop takes the place of Great Panes, which moved to the back of the same building.

Owner Joan Eve Shea-Cohen said the space is much smaller but more manageable.

In her left storefront window, Shea-Cohen and store designerGary Weltner set up a survivor's window, stocked with merchandise that survived the flood. Overall, business hasn't really changed, Shea-Cohen said.

"People ask me all the time, 'Do you worry every time it rains?' I said, 'I can't do that. First of all, I'm 74, so if it happens again and I live through it again, I'll retire. We have no control over Mother Nature. I'm just going to enjoy it. This is my passion and I love it so much."

Kevin Metzler and Chase Battle, owners of Kingdom consignment, opened their new business on the lower end of Main Street about two months ago, selling a variety of tennis shoes and some clothing. Metzler said they originally planned to open along Red Branch Road in Columbia, where Battle owns a barber shop, but came to Main Street because of better foot traffic.

"I love the area. It's perfect for this," said Metzler, noting the lack of stores for men on the strip. "I do get nervous whenever it rains heavy though. It's an immediate feeling. I haven't even been here that long, so I can't even imagine how it feels for people who have been here forever."

Although the journey has been life altering, Cohee said, many businesses rose from the rubble to show their Main Street pride.

"We are so much better off than where we started a year ago; better than we were six months ago; better than we were last week. It's a constant growth and change," Cohee said. "We're strong, we're here and we're happy. The future is bright for us each day."

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