In the continuing effort to drum-up business on Main Street, the city's new economic development coordinator, Leigha Steele, and the Laurel Board of Trade will launch a Second Saturday celebration on April 8, bringing local business discounts and entertainment to the community.
On the second Saturday of the month, April through November, several Main Street businesses will offer customers discounted goods and services and family games and food will be available at a Kid's Zone in the farmers market lot next to BB&T Bank.
Shortly after becoming the economic development coordinator last October, Steele said she noticed the city's persistence to re-energize Main Street and show locals and visitors what it has to offer. The 24-year-old Hanover resident graduated from University of Maryland, College Park in 2014, earning a business management degree with specialization in entrepreneurship.
Steele previously worked in retail management for seven years at Once Upon A Child and Plato's Closet, she said, managing their new stores in Glen Burnie and Laurel, respectively.
"I think I have a really good perspective of what business owners go through every day," Steele said. "On Main Street alone, we have a lot of great apartment communities, so people are living there and using the street. We wanted to draw people in [because] the city has shown that they do want to invest in the area to make it better for the future."
Steele said the city's Department of Economic and Community Development offers three local business grants for relocation, retail storefront facade improvement and street signs. The relocation grant encourages new businesses to move to Main Street by assisting business owners with the move and subsequent costs, covering up to $10,000.
The facade improvement grant, which offers up to $5,000, helps businesses or property owners make exterior improvements as long as the storefront is on the ground floor.
"Those two grants are encouraging the types of businesses that we want and feel would be good for the area, like retail, entertainment, food, health clubs and yoga studios," Steele said. "Those are the kinds of businesses that we want, to encourage the walkability of the area."
The sign grant provides funding to upgrade the appearance and property value of commercial businesses, she said.
City officials have also applied for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development's Main Street Affiliate Program, which offers resources, technical assistance and training to communities nationwide. Steele said the National Main Street Center nonprofit, now called Main Street America, follows a four-point strategy to revitalize community Main Streets through design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring.
A fifth point then focuses on promoting a clean, safe and green area.
"Every community is different. You can't just use a cookie-cutter plan in each community," Steele said. "When [program officials] come here, they'll actually get to see on-site what we have to work with, our strengths and weaknesses and help us move forward in the right direction."
Maureen Rogers, Laurel Board of Trade's administrative coordinator, said the board hosts networking sessions to strengthen the connection between businesses, with about 160 local businesses currently open and operating between Route 216 and Route 1.
To prepare for this latest event, Rogers said Steele and Laurel Board of Trade director Amanda Fields walked Main Street and visited businesses to garner interest among store owners.
"I think people will make new friends [and] get to know shop owners better. It's almost like a mini festival," Rogers said. "There's something about a small business where you get that personal interaction that you don't necessarily get in a big-box store."
At Rainbow Florist and Delectables, Judy Ashwell said she's relatively new to Main Street, after purchasing the flower shop in January. The business has been at the same location for about 30 years, the new owner said, with plans underway for its own showroom rejuvenation.
Ashwell said her shop's employees give the small business "a friendlier atmosphere."
"I've met a lot of the vendors in the area and it has been a great experience so far," Ashwell said. "[Steele and Fields] are trying to do things to bring more people and business onto Main Street, so I wanted to be open for the event because people are going to be here."
Another long-time Main Street business, Laurel Meat Market, will also join the festivities, said owner Bill Miles, cooking and selling hotdogs and hamburgers outside. In the store's 47 years of operation, Miles said he's seen other businesses come and go, but hopes the Second Saturdays will promote traffic and bring in new faces.
"I want to be involved with Main Street and whatever comes down the pike," Miles said. "You have to be out there for your customers and take care of your customers; make sure they're welcome at your place and thank them for coming."
Fields said the shopping strip offers more than what visitors experience during the annual Main Street Festival, catering to everyone's interests. She and Steele said they believe the Second Saturday event will start out slowly, but will build over time.
"All the businesses are definitely going to just try it out and see what happens," Steele said. "We're just going to try to keep it small and make sure everything goes smoothly. From there it's going to grow and we'll see what happens in the future."
The first Second Saturday in Laurel will be held April 8 from noon to 7 p.m. on Main Street, with the majority of attractions happening earlier in the afternoon, she said, such as $1 hotdogs and hamburgers at the Laurel Meat Market, food trucks by the farmers market lot and $10 photos with the Easter Bunny by Madison Photography at Rainbow Florist and Delectables. The Kid's Zone will include a coloring table, life-size Easter basket, story corner and gaming truck, with music provided by King Productions.
Fields, who's on the board of directors, says this month's theme, Hop on Down to Main Street, will also feature the Easter Bunny. Fields is also the Maryland territory manager for LocaLynx, a marketing app that promotes small businesses within a 30-mile radius.
"This is my baby. I had the idea after hearing about First Fridays in Annapolis" when the city closes off a local street for guests to shop and eat, Fields said. "Leigha was all about it, and together, we brainstormed and planned it all out."
Green balloons will mark the participating businesses. As of Tuesday, about 16 businesses were expected to participate, including Sweets and Treats Creamery; More Than Java; the Chamber Room; American K9 Dog Shop; and home-based business vendors, like Thirty-One Bags and Mary Kay, who will be set up inside Sip at C Street.