David L. Miller manages a laugh as he talks about the great expectations that have not been met at his 2-year-old dry-cleaning establishment.
Miller says he once thought his business would grow quickly along with new commercial development in the massive Columbia Gateway business park on Md. 175 just west of Interstate 95. He would gain customers from the thousands of new white-collar workers, he'd figured.
Instead, new commercial activity was grinding to a halt as he was opening his Wardrobe Valet at the Gateway Plaza shopping center. He has watched two businesses, including the '50s-style Classics Pub, go out of business.
He has taken in wholesale dry cleaning "at a discount" to survive until new tenants -- and more walk-in customers -- arrive at the park. During a 20-minute conversation in the late morning, no customers pass through his door.
"If things had kept going half in the line they were going when we signed our leases three years ago, we'd have been OK," he says.
His establishment was the first to open at Gateway Plaza when he began operations in February 1990. At that time, commercial real estate had been flourishing in the area and he thought it held the promise of going strong for years.
The Rouse Co. carved out Columbia Gateway on 600 acres of land on Md. 175 just west of I-95. The company says Gateway ultimately will have 4 million square feet of office space. It has sold some of the land to other developers, who have built 1.3 million square feet of office space so far.
But the growth at Gateway came to a sudden standstill as the economy faltered in late 1989 and Columbia's office-vacancy rate began to climb. The hundreds of new office workers Miller had envisioned as potential customers never appeared.
"These were exactly the type of people I want," Miller says with a laugh that is hardly joyous. "They're white-collar workers, they have good-quality clothes and they [clothes] come in relatively clean and hold up well. It's a dry cleaner's dream as far as customers are concerned."
His laugh turns into a frown as he points toward the storefronts where Classics Pub and Peppercorn's Cafe operated until they closed recently. "There's just about nothing here," he says.
Miller, who plans to open another dry-cleaning store in Columbia at the Hickory Ridge Village Center, which is under construction, says he is sure things will improve eventually. He says the wholesale cleaning and a healthy cash reserve would help him survive the hard times at Gateway Plaza.
"Our plan was that four years after we opened, it would be a fantastic place," says Miller. "I think one day, before our lease runs out [in five years], it will be a good place."
Gerald Koh, of the Kokos Food store next door, says he also believes activity will increase. He points out that the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Education will open a new facility at Gateway and that Ford Motor Credit Co. plans to employ 900 people.
But Koh says he's disappointed that the business park hasn't developed fast enough to help bring him more customers sooner.
"My life is on the line," Koh says as three lunchtime customers browse the shelves of his convenience store and delicatessen. "Everything I have is depending on this."
He says his store is making enough to allow him to plod through the commercial building slump. Asked if he would have gone into business at Gateway knowing that tough times were ahead, he says, "I would have negotiated a little better . . . and I would have been a lot more patient."
Ed Ely, director of land sales for the Rouse Co., says the retail stores should benefit from the addition of several new firms that have come to the business park in recent months and others that plan to locate there, including Ford Motor Credit and the G-Tech Corp.
Ely acknowledges that activity at Gateway had been slow during the two-year period, but says it picked up last year. "There is a variety of major employers that have moved into the park, and that's going to continue," he says.
Despite the woes at Gateway Plaza, a restaurant that opened last November in the nearby Columbia Restaurant Park on Md. 175 has done brisk business, according to its owners.
"Our acceptance has been great," says Anne Durning, a spokeswoman for the Olive Garden, a chain of 290 Italian restaurants based in Orlando, Fla.
She says that, although the restaurant depends on nearby businesses for lunch receipts, the Olive Garden owes much of its early success to its ability to attract Columbia residents.