Can Subway really undermine Ellicott City's Main Street?

Is Ellicott City's Main Street about to turn into Route 40?

Depends on whom you ask, but some merchants in the quaint and quirky, fun and funky little enclave the Chamber of Commerce likes to call Historic Ellicott City have worried aloud that the arrival of a Subway sandwich shop in their midst spells trouble.

You can understand the concern. Main Street's stock in trade is small, independently owned antique shops, art stores, bistros and such in old stone buildings left over from a former mill town. It's meant to be a place where a young hipster or suburban professional can stroll, find that certain something and then stop for a drink.

Subway is a national franchise found in malls and strip centers. You stop there when you're on the run to someplace else and need to grab a quick bite.

Sometimes it seems like you can't drive two blocks without seeing one.

The opening of a Subway (which was to take place this week but has been delayed) on Main Street could dull its edge. Like if you put one of Hillary Clinton's pantsuits on Bjork.

See, the existing merchants are fretting about their brand, the vibe that makes them stand out in a world of Walmarts.

If the sub shop succeeds, they worry, we might then see Pizza Hut, Applebee's or some other cookie-cutter hangout of the great unwashed follow suit. Pretty soon Main Street wouldn't be different any longer, and people who go out of their way to get there will forget why.

The merchants are not of one mind on this, however. Some of them are happy just to see someone opening for business on Main Street, considering the current economic climate. Having a Subway is way better than having an empty storefront, they figure, and fears of a slippery slope toward homogenization are overblown.

They're probably right that Subway can't kill what Main Street has going for it. Indeed, most shoppers won't give it a second thought unless they've got a hankering for a teryaki club. But the place will have lost something.

Main Street's appeal is in its "otherness," the firm sense when you're there that it isn't like any other commercial center in these parts. That offbeat combination of nostalgia and thrift-store chic the regulars enjoy will fade at the sight of the familiar yellow-and-green Subway sign. The one they see every day all over Howard County and beyond.

Retail is a fickle mistress, of course, and Main Street's fortunes will rise and fall whether there's a Subway there or not. But once you've established a commercial identity, you want to hang onto it for as long as it's attractive to a viable customer base.

Whether and how much the presence of the Subway might detract from that identity won't be that easy to determine. Who knows? It might even help.

It could even turn out to be a positive, a beauty mark, if you will. Like Cindy Crawford's mole, it might be that little imperfection that makes the attractiveness of the big picture stand out all the more.

Besides, even the most bohemian shopper craves a teryaki club now and again.

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