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Howard County Times
Howard County

Businesses push Kittleman to delay opening of Main Street, commit to long-term recovery plan

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman fielded questions at a stand-room only townhall on the flood recovery process on Wednesday night at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City.

For Cris Werneck, the business decision to reopen her clothing shop, Boliwalou, in historic Ellicott City rests on "a huge leap of faith": Will the county commit to rebuilding the flood-prone town so it can push back against future storms?

"I could flood next week and I don't know if people will come," Werneck said.

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At a standing-room only town hall Wednesday night, owners of Main Street businesses swept into ruin in the July 30 flash flood urged Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman for assurances on how the historic district will rebound. Frustrations and anxiety about the future of historic Ellicott City, which has been hit by several floods in the last several years, ran high as the area faces what could be a partial and capricious year-long recovery.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman fielded questions at a stand-room only townhall on the flood recovery process on Wednesday night at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City.

"For me to survive this, I must sell my home and borrow a great deal of money. What I need to hear is that really big plan that no one is telling me about," said Sam Coyne, owner of Craig Coyne Jewelers, which lost at least a half-million dollars in inventory to the flood.

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Coyne does not plan to return to the historic district, where his shop has been for 16 years.

The county's future plans to control stormwater in the historic district — repeatedly called into question Wednesday night by residents in the historic district and surrounding communities like Valley Meade — will depend heavily on whether the county receives a federal disaster aid declaration from President Obama, Kittleman said, adding he was "frustrated" the federal government had not made a decision.

The county is completing several studies that will guide how the county builds retention ponds, walls and other stormwater management controls that catch and retain water, Kittleman said.

Business owners also fired back against the county's plans to reopen Main Street to pedestrians on Sept. 20, calling on Kittleman to extend opening day to give businesses more time to clean up. Few saw merit in opening the area, which Kittleman said is a construction zone, to the public.

Gretchen Shuey, owner of popular coffee shop Bean Hollow, said business owners hit hard by the flood did not have enough time to secure their businesses — let alone open up shop. Since the flood, a handful of businesses on the fringes of Main Street have opened up shop, including Judge's Bench and the Wine Bin.

"We are still in a state of emergency. … I don't have floors, I don't have walls, I don't have plumbing, I don't have electricity," Shuey said. "Looting has been an ongoing problem. … Now we're going to let [the public] into the rubble?"

The county is setting itself up for a "logistical nightmare," said Sally Fox Tennant, owner of Discoveries, a quaint antique shop, and an Ellicott City resident.

Credentialed residents, business owners, property owners and construction workers can access the area between Sept. 17 and 20 to clean up, Kittleman said.

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Security and safety is an added and unnecessary headache for business owners who will be restoring their businesses as the public enters the area, said Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit that aims to preserve the county's cultural and historical heritable.

"The people that are going to be coming once this is open are not going to be shoppers. They're going to be the curiosity people," he said. "They're going to be looking … what can I see? What can I look into?"

But for others like displaced Main Street resident Kelly Secret, opening day could not come sooner. She is among 190 residents displaced by the flood, many of whom live above businesses on Main Street.

"We would very much like to go home, have a change of clothes," Secret said. "The residents have long since been the eyes and ears of the town. We watch over your businesses while you were sleeping at home in your houses."

After the meeting, Kittleman said he will look into the possibility of considering delaying opening day. Police officers will be present when the area opens to maintain security, he said.

"I don't want to set any expectations at this point," Kittleman said. "You can't close it forever."

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Sam Coyne of Craig Coyne Jewelers said needed assurances from the county that the old town will remain economically viable.

'Who comes next?'

As the barricades that block Main Street give way to the public later this month, Robin Holliday, owner of HorseSpirit Arts Gallery on Main Street, said she worries about how the flood will change the character of the district, which is known for its quaint shops and tight community spirit.

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In the partial and capricious recovery process, who will replace the businesses that leave and the residents that decide to move elsewhere? The big question, Holliday said, is "Who comes next?"

Coyne called on Kittleman to commit to ensuring the economic vitality of the historic town. "If you're about the downsize, now is the time to tell people," Coyne said.

Kittleman said rebuilding the town was never in question. He promised the county will "do everything in our power to promote Ellicott City," adding "the whole world will know" Ellicott City will rebound.

"Ellicott City is going to continue on and be stronger than it ever was before," Kittleman said.

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Still, Councilman Jon Weinstein, who represents the historic district, encouraged business and property owners to carefully decide whether or not they should return.

"The information you need is not going to come fast enough. … You have to look at your life … and make the best decision you can," Weinstein said.

Kittleman has established a recovery group, led by former county executive and state Sen. Jim Robey, to guide the county's rebuilding process. That group will begin meeting over the next several weeks.


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