Laurel streets were lightly dusted with snow Monday, but the weather was just right for Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot to do some holiday shopping.
Franchot stopped by an indoor Farmers Market set up at the Laurel Mill Playhouse Dec. 9 as part of his "Shop Maryland For the Holidays" tour.
The comptroller, along with Laurel officials, had initially planned to walk on Main Street and drop in on businesses along the way, but snowy weather meant everyone congregated inside the Playhouse instead, where vendors had booths set up to display their wares.
Franchot said the Shop Maryland initiative "helps independent retailers make enough sales during the holiday season to have a good profit margin and stay in business next year.
"These businesses are the heart and soul of the state's economy," he added. "There's just no ifs, ands or buts about it. We love our big corporations … but if you want jobs, you want wage growth in the state of Maryland – 70 percent of it comes from small businesses."
Franchot has traveled across the state on his tour. He said he decided to make a stop in Laurel because "P.G. County is a huge jurisdiction" and Laurel is an important hub.
He said this holiday season has been especially tough on businesses, who lost a week in sales because of an unusually late Thanksgiving.
"We have a lot of shoppers but not enough shopping," Franchot said. "It's a tough climate for the Main Street independent businesses, but people need to patronize them."
He urged holiday shoppers to get off the Internet and buy local because "it's the patriotic thing to do" – unless, of course, the Internet business itself was local.
Laurel small businesses
Of the four small businesses that set up booths inside the playhouse, three are currently Internet-based, although all the owners said they spread the word with frequent appearances at markets and other in-person venues.
Elvina Desouza-Omidiran started BRYE Cupcakes with her husband, Julius Omidiran, in September and brought the brightly colored baked goods to the Laurel Farmers Market on Main Street every week until the market closed for the season in October.
Desouza-Omidiran, who decided to launch a cupcake business after years of searching, unsuccessfully, for cupcakes that tasted just like her mother made, said she hoped to open a brick-and-mortar store on Main Street soon.
"I fell in love with the Laurel community – from children to adults, they just received me so well," she said. "I decided this is the market for me."
Michelle Arsenault, who sells handmade sterling silver and recycled rosary-bead jewelry on her Etsy site, Michelle Ink Designs, said she supplements her online income with showcases at the Venus Theatre Play Shack on C Street.
On Dec. 15, she and other local artisans are planning a "Shacky Chic Boutique" event at the Play Shack to entice shoppers with handcrafted gifts and homemade eggnog.
Arsenault, who works as a nurse and formerlly operated Stitching Pretty needleart boutique, said she couldn't afford to spend the time and money necessary to maintain a shop on Main Street. For the moment, running an online boutique suits her just fine.
"The problem with getting a store is you're no longer the artist – you're the business owner," she said.
But she wouldn't mind a little extra holiday business: While November was a good month, December so far has been "difficult – it's been a little slow."
Laurel Board of Trade Chairman Matthew Coates said holiday shopping turnout in Laurel so far hasn't been as strong as businesses had hoped.
"We thought that Small Business Saturday [Nov. 30] would be a big boost … still we're not getting the traffic we'd like to see," he said.
Laurel Board of Trade President Bernie Robinson said the slump wasn't unique to Laurel.
"The holidays aren't over," he said. "I'd say we're on par with the rest of Maryland."
Robinson said Laurel had a lot to look forward to: "We're in a state of anticipation for the dynamic changes the new Town Centre Laurel will bring" when stores begin to open in spring or early summer where the former Laurel Mall was located.
"Next year, we'll see more and more shoppers" come to Laurel to make holiday purchases, he predicted.
Laurel spokesman Pete Piringer agreed.
"As you look at Laurel in general, I think a lot of businesses and people in Laurel are looking to see what happens [at the Town Centre Laurel]," he said.
The city's been working to entice business owners to a Main Street light on retail with tax incentives, which is what helped convince one businesses, the long-standing Laurel Health Foods Store, to move from its old location on Bowie Road to a smaller space on Main Street.
And Piringer pointed to residential development on C Street, as well as improvements and new tenants at the Laurel Lakes and Cherry Lane shopping centers as indicators of an improving business climate.
"They all kind of go hand-in-hand and I think Main Street and all the businesses will benefit," he said.
Franchot did his part and put his money where his mouth is: The comptroller walked away with olive oil and vinegar from online business Olive Oil 4 Life, a bracelet from Michelle Ink Designs and a box of cupcakes from BRYE Cupcakes.