It's not every day that one of the state's two U.S. senators comes to town, so on Thursday when Sen. Ben Cardin visited Laurel, city officials made sure his time was well spent.
Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, started his day in Laurel with lunch at the Laurel Municipal Center, joined by city officials and local business owners.
During the meal, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe gave remarks and introduced various speakers who told Cardin about the current business climate in Laurel. Topics discussed included changes at Laurel Regional Hospital, economic development projects in the city and the region and the state of business on Main Street.
"Everything is not peaches and cream, but I can tell you we're doing everything we can," Laurel Board of Trade chairman Matthew Coates said about Main Street businesses.
Moe talked about some of the problems the city has faced in ensuring Main Street businesses thrive, such as lack of parking and strict laws regulating placement of liquor licenses.
"Part of the issue is, where Main Street was (once) the center of town, now that's shifted," Moe said.
Cardin, speaking to the lunch crowd, emphasized the importance of buying local.
"The growth is going to happen in this country with smaller companies. ... If you don't have a healthy environment for small business, you can't have an economy that's going to grow," he said.
Cardin serves on the Senate's Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. After he was first elected to the Senate in 2006, Cardin said he was the only freshman senator who volunteered for that committee.
Bus tour of Main Street
After lunch, Cardin, Moe, state Del. Barbara Frush, all five Laurel City Council members and a few others boarded a bus to Main Street, where they visited longtime businesses Rainbow Florist and Delectables and the Laurel Meat Market.
On the ride, former Anne Arundel County Executive and Central Maryland Regional Transit board member Janet Owens talked about CMRT's services, which include the Connect-A-Ride routes that run through Laurel.
When Cardin asked how CMRT's finances were doing, CMRT interim president and CEO Beverly Walenga said the company relies mostly on state and local government subsidies (80 percent). The rest (20 percent) of CMRT's funding comes from advertising sales and fares, which have gone up in recent years.
"It's not really a public subsidy because you're saving us money," Cardin said. "This really is in the public interest."
At Rainbow Florist, owner Debbie Zook told Cardin business is down and therefore so are the number of employees who work at the store. She said she had 22 employees six years ago; now she has eight.
"I don't want to let anyone go, but we struggle," she said.
Business in the past two years has been particularly tough, Zook said.
One of the problems, she noted, is people often go online to buy flowers. And while those sites turn to the local florist to do the work, the florist gets about one-fourth less from each order than they would get if the customer ordered directly from the store.
Cardin said he would like to see more regulations that require more consumer awareness about those facts.
"We need you here," he told Zook. "This is the strength of the community, the strength of Laurel."
Before leaving Rainbow Florist, Cardin bought a bouquet of flowers for his wife.
Down the street, Cardin talked to Laurel Meat Market owner Bill Miles.
"You have the right niche with the community, and they know that," Cardin told Miles, noting "it's the smaller companies that find the innovative ways."
Miles, who has run the Meat Market for 42 years, said business is "decent" but the store's not making much money.
"Last year was pretty tough," he said.
Back on the bus, when asked about what he took away from talking to Zook and Miles, Cardin said: "They're having a tough time. It's not easy in this environment. People are spending less and competition is very tough."
Cardin said the federal government can help by ensuring tax policies and business regulations are considerate of small businesses, and that there is fair pricing for energy and other things the companies need to operate.
"We've got to make it more profitable for small businesses," he said.
In addition, he said the Small Business Administration "has to be more aggressive" in making it easier for businesses to get financing.
Cardin's final stop was the former Laurel Mall, whose front parking deck has been demolished into concrete pieces. Inside a trailer at the demolition site, Cardin viewed plans for the new Towne Centre at Laurel.
"Route 1 and the whole area is going to be impacted in a very positive way," he said.
After Cardin left, Moe said he was thankful for Cardin's visit.
"It really does send a signal that he cares about local government and local business," he said.
Added Frush: "It's nice to have a federal official come in to our community and understand how important those businesses are to our community."