For Ellicott City businesses, Shop Small Saturday is a study in resilience

For The Baltimore Sun

As the unofficial kickoff of the holiday shopping season approaches, retail business owners in historic Ellicott City are gearing up for Shop Small Saturday on Nov. 24.

Organizers say that more than 75 percent of the shops, restaurants, bars and salons that line the Main Street business district have reopened since May’s flash flood wreaked havoc on the town for the second time in less than two years.

Including five new businesses slated to open between Nov. 17 and Nov. 24, more than 65 merchants will take part in the event planned for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Popularly known across the country as Small Business Saturday, the day is set aside for consumers to show their support of the entrepreneurs who operate one-of-a-kind establishments in their communities. It is held every year on the day after Black Friday.

Festivities in Ellicott City will include live music and entertainment throughout town. Listings of open businesses and special sales being offered that day are available at visitoldellicottcity.com.

Not only have three-quarters of the 78 retail establishments reopened along Main Street, new businesses are choosing to put down roots in the old mill town, said Kelly Zimmerman, marketing director for the Ellicott City Partnership, a not-for-profit organization.

That says a lot about the enduring appeal of Old Ellicott City, she says — for small-business owners and consumers alike.

But there’s lingering concern that some people may not realize how much progress has been made in recovery efforts over the last five months and they may wrongly assume the historic district couldn’t possibly be back on its feet already.

Nothing could be further from the truth, organizers say.

“The strength of the town and its inhabitants is certainly something to behold,” said Matt Fleming, president of the partnership’s board of directors and an Ellicott City resident.

“Ellicott City is a resilient community that is loved by all who live and work here, because it’s such a special place,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges the partnership faces, nonetheless, is letting people know that it’s business as usual for many Main Street business owners, Zimmerman said.

“We’re different than we were,” she said, “but in many ways, we’re better.”

One of the differences: 17 businesses formerly operating in the old mill town have either relocated or gone out of business.

“There are also a handful that are undecided about the future and some waiting for new spaces to become available,” Zimmerman said.

Other changes include the exit of Ellicott City Partnership’s executive director, Maureen Sweeney Smith, whose last day was Nov. 12.

Sweeney Smith said she gave her notice more than a month ago after determining that working on recovery efforts from two floods in three years was taking a toll on her, adding that she will probably look for another nonprofit-sector job after the holidays.

The partnership’s board will begin working to fill the open position sometime in January, Zimmerman said, adding that the group’s promotions committee has traditionally taken the reins of event planning in the historic district and won’t be adversely impacted by the vacancy during the holiday season.

The county has also seen change — from County Executive Allan Kittleman to Calvin Ball, who defeated Kittleman in the election and will take office Dec. 3. Fleming said the partnership, which voted unanimously in September to support the Kittleman administration’s flood mitigation proposal to buy and demolish certain Main Street buildings, looks forward to working with Ball and other newly elected officials on myriad issues, “including resilience to flooding.”

The organization firmly believes Old Ellicott City’s issues must be quickly addressed, he added.

“Our constituents have vocally stated that we feel some urgency in terms of the need for flood mitigation activities,” Fleming said.

For now, Ellicott City Partnership’s attention is focused on restoring economic vitality and getting reacquainted with customers during the holidays, he said.

A highlight of this year’s Shop Small Saturday event will be a new initiative called Main Street Stars, Zimmerman said.

Wooden stars that attendees can paint with their family’s name or a message will be hung on the Main Street Christmas tree and on garlands strung about town. The campaign is loosely modeled on Stars of HOPE, a nationwide healing initiative.

“This will be a fun, family craft project,” she said.

Shop Small Saturday is just the beginning of Main Street’s holiday season, Fleming noted.

The event is a precursor to another tradition on Main Street: Midnight Madness will mark its 40th anniversary on Dec. 7.

During that annual extravaganza, the official Christmas tree lighting ceremony will take place at 6 p.m. at the B&O Railroad Museum plaza and the Mount Hebron Madrigal Choir, the Ellicott City Ballerina Project and other local groups will perform throughout the town.

Girls Night Out, a popular activity aimed at women, was rescheduled last week from Nov. 15 to Nov. 29, due to the snowy forecast.

Business owners are eager to show off the progress they’ve made in finding a new normal after the second flood.

Kelli Meyers, the owner of A Journey from Junk at Linwood Boutique, said Shop Small Saturday is her biggest retail sales day of the year and she expects this year to be no different despite some upheaval along Main Street.

“We have a very, very loyal customer base and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Meyers, who sells new gift items and home decor and is now partnering with the Linwood Center, a facility for adults with autism that sells gently used and refurbished items.

Her shop, located at the base of Old Columbia Pike, is already decorated for the season.

Christmas lights will be strung on the facades of all Main Street businesses, including those that are currently boarded up, Meyers said.

“We’re making sure the whole town is decorated because we want to give everyone a reason to walk from the top of Main Street to the bottom,” she said.

Zimmerman said it’s been a trying time, but Ellicott City is worth it.

“We’ve been through a lot, emotionally and financially, over the last two years,” she said. “Now we want the greater community to come out and see what’s new this holiday season and to celebrate our resilience with us.”

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