Howard County Times
Howard County

100 days after flood, Ellicott City businesses face a new normal

Mojan Bagha, who owns a store that sells opulent, handmade rugs from around the world, knows the risks of doing business in old Ellicott City. Frequent floods are a mainstay of the 244-year-old town's historic fabric and the quaint businesses that sit around the hilly terrain.

The latest flood in late July, which dumped six inches of rain in two hours, did not deter Bagha from reopening his store, Main Street Oriental Rugs, alongside others on Saturday.


"A business owner takes risks. I wouldn't be a business owner otherwise. This is what I do," said Bagha, who immigrated from Iran in 1977. "The phoenix rises from the ashes."

But 100 days after the devastating flood, Main Street business are eyeing a long return to normalcy as holiday shopping season comes into full swing, new faces come in and landmarks leaves.


More than half of the businesses on Main Street have not opened since the county lifted a state of emergency on Oct. 6.

"We are lacking the critical mass that will make Ellicott City work," said Tom Coale, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership, a nonprofit that is distributing more than $1.3 million in donations. "Things are moving into a new normal. Until we get that critical mass, it'll be hard to see where we are going."

Most businesses are just seeing checks from the partnership, which must fulfill its mission to preserve the vitality of the historic district. The partnership is distributing less money from donations to businesses that chose to leave Main Street, according to partnership president Karen Besson.

Other business owners say insurance companies have reneged on promises for costly flood insurance policies. Gretchen Shuey, owner of popular coffee spot Bean Hollow, took "painstaking" efforts to understand her flood insurance policy and provided the insurance company with before-and-after photos of all inventory and invoices for the last two years.

"There's no actual money for businesses owners in this situation coming from state, county or federal government," Shuey said. "If a flood were to happen again next year, we've got nothing to fall back on."

Her insurance company is covering $104,000 for more than $200,000 in damages.

Although some businesses on higher ground opened in early October, landmarks of the local business scene, like Rumor Mill Bar and Fusion Restaurant, originally on Tiber Alley, are not returning to their original locations because of financial constraints and uncertain timetables on reopening.

The future of other businesses on the lower end of the street, which was hit hardest by the flood and largely remains boarded up, are in limbo as rebuilding continues.


Joan Eve, owner of Joan Eve Classics and Collectives, an antique store among the hardest hit by the flood, has not received an estimate on when her store might be ready to reopen.

"Main Street is where I belong. I'm anxious to come back," Eve said.

Sam Coyne, of Craig Coyne Jewelers, a high-end jewelry shop on Main Street for 16 years, said he is struggling to find a new location for his shop, which was among those heavily damaged and requires a location with property lighting, showcases and security.

Coyne said his equipment and merchandise was looted after the flood when the county denied access to the area.

Don Reuwer Jr., president of Waverly Real Estate Group, which owns a large portion of buildings on Main Street, is confident the town is already coming back "stronger than ever."

Many buildings are more flood-proof and several interiors and exteriors are more attractive after post-flood renovations, with new features like ceramic floors to replace wood floors and newer heating and ventilation system, Reuwer Jr. said.


Some buildings were "in dire need of repair," Reuwer said.

New faces, like a Syrian cafe and a family-owned pet boutique and bakery called Clipper's Canine Cafe, which has a location in Savage, are also on the way.

Taylor's Collective, a store that features a pool of artists, will open with a champagne reception Nov. 18. The 25,000-square-foot building closed for major renovations in late 2013, and the flood damaged the store's brand new floors and the surrounding structure.

Cindi Ryland, president of a company that manages the store, said people frequently rap on the store's windows to see if they can come in.

"This has brought us all together in a united way," Ryland said of the July flood. "I feel saddened, but very positive."

That opening pushed vacancy rates to 10 percent in 2014, a number that typically hovered between 4 and 0.2 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the Howard County Economic Development Authority.


The Caplan building, once a department store that housed clothing boutique Sweet Elizabeth Jane, is vacant and will likely open around March. Sweet Elizabeth Jane is moving to another location on Main Street.

John Shoemaker hopes the momentum of public interest will carry through the end of the year, when his store, Shoemaker Country, will likely open.

'A new facade'

Silently and subtlety, the old town is re-shifting its brand, market and identity from an antique and collectibles spot to a broader range of goods and services. The flood could trigger changes in clientele, the types of businesses attracted to vacant spots and the character of the town.

The Ellicott City Partnership is providing consultations to help business owners target customers and hone their niche.

Shoemaker said it's too early to tell how Main Street's business scene, which he said it taking on a new facade, will change.


But the flood is hastening the pace of a generational transition from antiques and collectives to consumer goods that cover a broader spectrum, Reuwer said.

"Old shop owners are giving way to a new generation and that generation is targeting their peers," Reuwer said. "If you were thinking about retiring, the flood made that decision for you. People who would've hung on have decided it's time for the next generation to take over."

Change is not uncommon in the old town, which was once a collection of grocery stores, a movie theater and hardware shops.

Bagha hopes for radical change. He says the old historic district should shed some of its historic past to bring in more corporate stores like those in Georgetown.

"We are living in a different time. People's habits have changed. It's time to adapt," Bagha said.

Already, the town has taken on a subtle, but different character. Changes in county law passed after the flood have relaxed some historic preservation requirements to speed up rebuilding.


"We are going through a massive reboot. The vacancies give us a little bit of pause," said Nicholas Johnson, owner of Su Casa, a furniture store on Main Street that opened a little over a month ago. "But there's a certain type of business that's attracted to Ellicott City. They are smaller and owner-operated. That will stay the same."

Still, the fear of another flood looms.

Business and property owners are looking to state and county officials to manage stormwater in the historic district.

The county has launched a series of public charettes beginning this month to gather community feedback as it completes comprehensive studies of the drainage area.

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But at its heart, the town's community spirit, frequently cited by business owners as a magnetizing force that encouraged them to stay in the flood-prone town, will recharge and refuel recovery.

"On its own, the flood would've been terrible if it just had been us," Johnson said. "But when you turn to your neighbor, you realize you're in it together."


Coffee shop owner Shuey decided to stay because Ellicott City is everything she's known. Walking away would mean walking away from friends, neighbors and customers. Shuey worked at the shop when she purchased it in 2002. She also met her husband there.

That emotional attachment was also significant for Robin Holliday, owner of Horse Spirits Gallery, which opened a little over a year ago.

"I lost as much as I gained in the flood," Holliday said. "I lost a significant amount monetarily. In terms of realizing the value of this community and my friends, that was a gift. It's kind of like a roller coaster. Some days I can focus on the really positive and the other days I'm wondering how it's going to work out."

The community's commitment to the town during the holiday season will determine how Ellicott City will get back on its feet, Coale said.

"This holiday season will be the rocket fuel that puts things into motion," he said.