Ellicott City draws firms seeking value, ambience

As Columbia thrives as a magnet for fiber optics companies and a hub for high-tech intellect, another Howard County town has become a beneficiary of its success.

Companies are coming to Ellicott City for office space, and even the historic district is getting its share.


At a time when commercial real estate in Columbia is at a premium in availability and price - Columbia boasts a 96 percent occupancy rate - other Howard County locales are becoming more appealing to smaller companies that are looking for less square footage, local commercial real estate agents said.

For companies wanting to escape traditional office space to find a little more ambience, Ellicott City, including historic Main Street, is becoming a niche.


Three companies have moved into new space along Main Street in recent months, some of them paying a higher rent than many of their retail neighbors. Another company, Centertek Solutions, began moving into a Main Street location last week. And developer Michael Pfau unveiled his proposal to the Historic District commission last week to build an office complex just off Main Street.

Even the county is selling its property in the prominent Gateway office complex and building offices in Ellicott City near its complex on Court House Drive.

"If you have a client that needs 1,000 square feet today, you have to take them where you can, and most likely that's in Ellicott City," said Stephen J. Ferrandi, a tenant broker for KLNB. "Columbia is no longer a small-business-friendly community. The buildings going up are attracting major, national companies that are taking 30,000 to 100,000 square feet at a time. My job is to find [my small clients] space, so that means I go to Ellicott City or Laurel, or someplace I might not typically go. A lot of smaller tenants, you find that you can't satisfy their need in Columbia right now."

Lower prices in Ellicott City are a motivator as well, many commercial real estate agents say. Inexpensive office space in Columbia leases at about $18 a square foot, Ferrandi said, but inexpensive space in Ellicott City leases at about $14 a square foot.

"Rents have accelerated so dramatically, many companies are looking at serious issues about not being able to maintain, and they're looking to other space," said Darrel Nevin, who owns The LeaseWright, a commercial realty company in Columbia. "The secondary market is becoming more attractive for companies looking to expand, or who are experiencing sticker shock when their leases are renewed."

Though office space is hard to find in Ellicott City and parking in the historic district can be difficult, the town seems to be drawing companies. There, better prices are nice but are not always the primary consideration for new tenants. The most recently leased buildings - on the uphill end of Main Street, many in renovated spaces - have fetched handsome prices "comparable to Columbia," according Lisa DeVries of Waverly Real Estate, who leased space to Centertek, an information technology company.

For some company owners, the historic city's charm is the chief selling factor.

"Downtown is just an incredible environment," said Jay Miller, president and founder of Centertek. "The rates were more reasonable in Ellicott City, but that was not a deciding factor."


Miller said he began his search for office space in Columbia but retreated from traditional space in favor of a place with more character. His office, at 8307 Main St., has warehouse-style high ceilings, exposed brick walls and oversized windows. The building, formerly a car dealership and showroom, was renovated last year by Old Town Construction.

David Robbins, principal of Architecture Collaborative Inc., moved to Ellicott City three years ago, and he recently purchased a building next door to his Main Street office to expand his architecture firm.

"What I'm looking for, I don't want to be in Columbia or even downtown Baltimore," Robbins said. Ellicott City "has the charm you get in Fells Point, Georgetown or Old Town [Alexandria]. It isn't the antiseptic suburban location. We're extremely happy here."