Half the fun of a senior prom is spending money, and local business people on the receiving end say the recession hasn't diminished the fun this year.

"For our type of business, this is where we either make it or break it," said Bob Nowakowski, co-owner of Regal Classic Limousine Service in Ellicott City.

"It's something that's looked forward to all year around."

This year he made it, with an estimated 10 percent increase over last year's prom business.

Among county students, prom spending easily tops $500,000 annually and benefits a variety of businesses, including purveyors of corsages, tuxedos, gowns and dinners.

About 30 percent of Nowakowski's yearly gross comes from prom business, about 15 percent of that from proms in the county.

The season is equally important to T.J. Johnson, owner of T.J.'s Tuxedo in the Equitable Bank Center in Columbia's Town Center.

"Basically, you have six weeks of flooding," he said. "In that six weeks, you probably will do 30 percent of your total business over a quarter."

He normally serves 350 prom-goers every spring, he said. With the season just about over, hefigures business will be about even with last year. In previous years, his prom business increased annually.

Some Howard High School seniors, responding to a survey by the junior class, said they plannedto spend as much as $1,000 for the evening, although a more typical figure was $400, said Brooke McClelland, a student adviser.

The school newspaper featured prom ads for everything from flowers to manicures from businesses looking for a piece of that evening's bankroll.

It doesn't always pay.

This year, PJ's restaurant in Ellicott City hoped to attract prom-goers by advertising free desserts in a Centennial High School student newspaper.

"It didn't do us any good. I think we had two couples," said owner Pat Patterson.

"I'm sure some people have done well, but we just didn't do much this season."

In past years, he said, between 30 and 40 couples have reserved tables for prom night, and most bought expensive entrees like prime rib or stuffed shrimp.

Bev & Lee Wilhide's Flowers in Ellicott City, Columbia and Laurel, expected an increase in prom business over last year, but they came out about even, said part-owner Dean Kreh. "The recession has hit the number of people that are buying," he said.

Nevertheless, those who did buy opted for the more expensive roses instead of mini-carnations and orchids for corsages.

Weak cycles in the economy, if short, do not have much effect on businesses that rent space for proms, since they often book more than a year in advance.

Only one site in Howard, the Rouse Building's Spear Center, was used for a county high school's prom this year.

Most were in downtownBaltimore hotels or Martin's West in Woodlawn, while Howard High's prom was last night at the center.

"A lot of schools come to us, but we're filled up," explains Tina Cole, the center's administrator. She said 10 schools are using the center this year, most of them from Montgomery County. The room is booked for proms through 1994, and costs a minimum of $1,000, not counting catering or music.

Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club also is host for a number of proms, charging$14 to $17 per person. The recession hasn't hurt Turf Valley's prom business either, said Linda Wolf, director of catering.

The juniorclass at Atholton, which traditionally organizes the senior prom, had to subsidize the Class of 1991's May 18 prom. Seniors paid $42 a couple for tickets, but that did not quite pay for the $12,000 event, said Reg Hahne, junior class sponsor and computer science teacher. Theroom at the BWI Marriott cost $8,500, while the rest went for a discjockey, flowers and other accessories.

In The Mall in Columbia, Rafet Gurbuz of Rafet's Hairmasters saw about 20 or 30 more customers over the prom weekends.

"Usually people are just doing the haircut, and they do their own styling thing at home," Gurbuz says.

Besides paying $25 for a cut and style, many prom-bound customers shelled out an extra $10 for a manicure, and were disappointed to hear Rafet's does not do facials, Gurbuz adds.

Over the 20 years the shop hasbeen in business, Gurbuz has noticed some changes, including the influx of male customers, which he says now amounts to about a quarter of his prom business.

And besides the revival of the straight-cut styles of the late 1960s, Gurbuz has also noticed that teen-agers seemto be more individualistic, and less likely to follow trends.

While they benefit the unbridled teen-agers' spending, business people said they get a little extra pleasure from witnessing the prom tradition every year.

"We love to see them come here," said the Spear Center's Cole, "because we can't wait to see what they're wearing. They promenade all evening. They're dressed up and they want to be seen."

"It's always nice to see," Patterson agreed. "The customers like to see it, a nice young couple coming in -- it brings back memories."

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