Advertisement

Howard Community College students give Ellicott City businesses hurt by floods a new life online

When a massive flood swept through historic Ellicott City nearly three years ago, Main Street storefronts were destroyed and shops were gutted, causing several businesses to close and customers to look elsewhere.

In the fall after the July 2016 flood, a team of Howard Community College students volunteered to help some of those businesses. The students, free of charge, took the brick-and-mortar shops and brought them online, building and updating websites, allowing the businesses to maintain a presence despite lacking daily face-to-face interactions with customers.

Advertisement

“The demographic of Ellicott City is the businesses enjoy being on a storefront,” said Liam Garrett, a former HCC student who is now a graphic design major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

When the second catastrophic flood hit in May 2018, putting many merchants back at square one, the HCC students were still helping Main Street businesses from the first flood; however, they did not shy away from adding shops to their efforts.

Called the Ellicott City Project, the HCC students studying computer science and entrepreneurship have been working with the Maryland Small Business Development Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Twenty-three students have been involved with the project.

Garrett Glover, a retail and restaurant specialist who works for the business development center, had wanted to bring an economic revitalization program to historic Ellicott City prior to the 2016 flood. After the first flood happened, he began to implement his plan, including helping merchants deal with the “emotional distress.”

One part of his program was to help those businesses that “had lost everything, literally everything” to generate revenue in other ways, including through online shops, which is how he joined up with HCC to create websites for the stores.

He matched the merchants with the students because many were “technology disadvantaged. Some of them were still doing their business out of cigar boxes.”

The all-volunteer group meets on Friday afternoons, either among themselves to work on building the websites or with the businesses. The students do not receive any academic credit for being involved.

In the past three years, the HCC students have helped over a dozen businesses, including Tea on the Tiber, Syriana Cafe, Bee Essentials, Discoveries, the Ellicott City Partnership, Great Panes Studio and Park Ridge Trading Co., among others. There currently are no Ellicott City merchants left on the students’ waiting list.

This past semester, the group worked on websites for Reyes Jewelry and Envy Salon.

Leeza Ennis, a manager at Envy Salon, said the hair salon found out about the student group before the second flood and was put on a waiting list to have a new, up-to-date website created.

In business for 20 years, the hair salon had its own website but it “was basically a dinosaur,” Ennis said, and it wasn’t compatible with search engines like Google so it never showed up as a result when potential clients searched online.

Over the past few months, the students created a new website for the salon that has many features, including original photographs taken by Jay Murray, a HCC student who graduated Friday. It also includes links to the salon’s Instagram and Facebook pages, a history of the salon, a menu of services offered and more.

“We are so thankful,” Ennis said. “Being a small business, it’s hard to pay for things like this, and it was great after the flood to be given the chance to get help with something like that [the website].”

Envy Salon occupies a house off of Old Columbia Pike that was built in 1842 by a stone mason. Murray photographed the house’s original brick walls, wooden floors and surfaces, and those images now serve as the background on the website.

Advertisement

David Reyes, owner of Reyes Jewelry on Main Street, has appreciated the students’ help over the past semester.

“We are still working [on it]; it’s ongoing,” Reyes said. “I think the website is going to do a great job and it’s going to be an improvement.”

Reyes currently has a website, but the students are working on something new for him.

Murray, 21, started taking photos with his mom’s camera three years ago “to pass time.”

After he became the photographer for the Ellicott City Project, he developed a passion that he hopes to turn into a lifelong career.

Murray has taken photographs for Envy Salon, Reyes Jewelry, Discoveries, Great Panes and Syriana Cafe. He also has done videography for some of the shops.

Besides being behind a camera, Murray, who majored in entrepreneurship, learned about website development, graphic design and website writing.

The Clarksville resident said he also “learned a few life lessons” about owning a small business, including pointers on how to run one.

For the businesses, Murray hopes the project is “giving them a sense of security or a sense of progression because we weren’t down there necessarily during the clean-up … but we are doing things behind the scene.”

Karina Bernal, 21, who also graduated with an associate degree in entrepreneurship, has been the project’s customer experience director during the past few semesters.

The Mount Airy resident would meet one-on-one with businesses to learn how they wanted their websites to turn out. She then learned how to make the websites and how to utilize search engine optimization, or SEO, to help increase website traffic.

“I didn’t know anything at the beginning and, in the end, I learned all these things,” she said.

Garrett, 22, of Catonsville, may have graduated from HCC last May, but he still volunteers with the group.

He has created countless logos for a variety of business websites and has been in charge of building the websites, so the shops would not have to be “entirely reliant” on in-person purchases.

“What got me into the group is it was an opportunity for the students to get a real-world work experience and can help people, real people, [after] a real natural disaster,” Garrett said.

Roger Weber, an entrepreneurship professor at HCC, has been involved with the project to assist the students, but said he has been very hands-off.

“It’s been amazing for these students,” Weber said. “I have immense respect for these students who have volunteered their time to help these businesses.”

Garrett, Murray and Bernal said they also enjoyed the friendships they have made with each other, creating “a family.” The three have been involved with the Ellicott City Project from the beginning.

Advertisement

What kept Murray involved is simple: He enjoyed himself.

“It was just a lot of fun,” he said. “To be completely honest, that’s why I stayed.”

Advertisement
Advertisement