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Carroll County small businesses look to bounce back after COVID-marred 2020

Bryan Zuber spent about 5½ months remodeling his trampoline park into Stratosphere Social. Approximately 90% of the trampolines were removed, an arcade was created, bowling alleys were constructed, a movie theater was added and chef-prepared food would be on the menu for the restaurant and bar.

But three days after the grand opening in March, he had to close due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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“I mean, 2020 was brutal,” Zuber said. “We definitely lost a lot of business.”

New businesses that opened or reopened in 2020 faced challenges of maintaining business throughout the pandemic. Owners described the layoffs and adjustments they had to make, and are hoping 2021 will be the year restrictions fall and customers can return to their establishments.

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Zuber closed what was originally a trampoline park for kids in October 2019. He remodeled the Eldersburg location and spent six weeks of beta testing. Thousands of dollars were spent including $10,000 for alcohol during the transformation into a more adult-friendly space.

After the governor’s order of limited social gatherings and decreased capacity limits, momentum and excitement for the new Stratosphere Social slipped, Zuber said.

The 20,000 square feet of space was closed, there were no sales, the business was still paying rent and workers were laid off. When Stratosphere reopened, the challenge was spreading the word they were more than a trampoline park.

Patrons watch a livestream of Wednesday night's varsity boys basketball matchup between tLiberty and Century at Stratosphere Social in Eldersburg Jan. 6, 2020.
Patrons watch a livestream of Wednesday night's varsity boys basketball matchup between tLiberty and Century at Stratosphere Social in Eldersburg Jan. 6, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

But the margins are tight.

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“To have extra expenses on top of that. It’s just a slower death,” he said.

However, he remains optimistic. He said they clean frequently, spread tables six feet apart and bowling lanes are separated by a large divider.

He added his client base is amazing and their Thursday trivia nights are a big hit. Businesses use their establishments for meetings and holiday parties, the bar streams high school sport games and carry-out is provided. If they continue on the path they’re on now, without more state restrictions, they will do fine, according to Zuber.

“At the end of the day, we’re all very optimistic because we have a great product and service here,” he said.

The owners of Sykesville Station, a restaurant and bar, took over the location on Memorial Day and opened Aug. 3.

Thomas Currence, a manager at the restaurant, said they are doing well and hanging in there. The wait staff had their hours cut back and the cold weather isn’t bringing as many customers to their outdoor deck for dining.

What they can count on, is the support they receive from the Sykesville community.

“This town really does support the small businesses a lot,” he said.

One of the dining rooms in the Sykesville Station restaurant which celebrates a grand opening today. August 19, 2020.
One of the dining rooms in the Sykesville Station restaurant which celebrates a grand opening today. August 19, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The manager said all the small businesses owners know one another and try to help each other out.

But the biggest obstacle, Currence said, is the short notice restaurants have when the governor orders new restrictions for restaurants.

“There’s not a warning,” he said. “They just shut you down all of a sudden and you have all these products and all these employees.”

When the restaurants can open back up, more people show, while they have less staff and products. He hopes the governor gives them more time before enacting changes.

Tonya O’Neill, the owner of Pure Peace CBD in Hampstead, saw an increase in sales for CBD products when the pandemic first hit, but it slowed down.

Now she’s working on bringing awareness of the CBD store, which has been tough, she said. It opened in early 2019.

“Something particular I would like customers to know, we always have new products,” she said, adding that everything is third-party lab tested.

“It’s about the healing not about the high,” she said.

Startup Portal, a new business that helps other businesses, also had its 2020 struggles. Rick Leimbach, principal of the company, said the business “went from active to just a pause.”

They started in January 2020 but had to withhold some of their resources to clients until mid-March.

He said the fate of the company for the first half of the year was unknown, but as the year went on, Zoom and YouTube were a big help.

“As we plan out 2021, we’re going to really start up the year with virtual learning,” Leimbach said, adding they hope to end the year with in-person activities.

Zach Tomlin, president of Tomlin Technology, said 2020 was hard and he does not believe they will see its true impact until this year.

He said the tech company was a good field to be in, but they were not exempt from the 2020 challenges. One day they would have a full staff, but the next day, staff would be out of the Westminster office due to quarantining.

It affected their response time to clients and Tomlin is unhappy about it.

“I have very high standards for what we do,” he said.

The company, which Tomlin started 10 years ago, deals with maintenance of business networks. But with more people working from home, the ISPs are different and staff tend to run into connecting and security issues. Tomlin called it a “double-edged sword.”

They did well with selling hardware, he said, but their office had to close shortly after its January 2020 grand opening. Tomlin said it was a big expense.

“We were hoping we were going to get a lot of foot traffic,” he said.

Mindy Amatucci had her own home photo studio since 2013 and “bit the bullet” to pursue her dream in having her own store font.

“Five minutes after I signed that lease, COVID happened,” she said.

She signed it the last week of February and planned the grand opening of Creative Phocus Photography April 1 in conjunction with the Westminster Flower and Jazz Festival, but it didn’t happen.

Thankfully, she said, her landlords let her extend the lease and her doors did eventually open in June.

“Business has not been terrible,” she said. “I think people are a little more reserved in spending what they usually spend.”

Amatucci said she thinks people are realizing now how important photos are because of the rate people are dying from the virus and what seems like a spike in newborns and pregnancies.

But it’s tough, she said. She had to let her assistant go and managing work with two children during virtual learning at the time was hard.

“It hasn’t been quite the dream I envisioned,” she said, “but I’m very optimistic.”

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