History has its price for a start-up business Microbrewery delayed a year by costs, renovation of building for modern use

June 17, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Martin Virga considered historic Ellicott City a prime spot to open a microbrewery and restaurant -- until start-up costs doubled to $2 million and delayed the pub's opening a year.

"It's a wonderful location with good demographics and traffic. You can't buy that," he said. "But unfortunately we are.

"This has to be one of the worst sites for a start-up business. It's incredibly expensive to readapt a historic structure to a modern use," he said. "The costs involved are astronomical."

A start-up venture by Virga and three partners to develop the historic district's first microbrewery has been troubled by poor financing -- and maybe bad judgment. Its site in a 148-year-old, two-story granite building on Main Street has set costs soaring.

That doesn't surprise anyone familiar with the district. Whether it's the cost of renovating a building, the dearth of convenient parking or opposition from fellow merchants, starting a business in the bustling district is risky.

"It's probably very difficult to start a business in an older area. It has its own special challenges," said Gary Maule, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit civic group that has promoted the preservation of the historic district for 16 years.

The entrepreneurs who forge ahead do so because "they obviously see something special in Ellicott City," Maule said.

The huge investment that people such as Virga are pouring into PTC the district has fueled the area's transformation from a sleepy mill town to a vibrant commercial area, he said.

The district once was a center where most of the county's residents shopped for such everyday needs as groceries and clothing.

But after the advent of strip malls in Howard County in the 1960s, "the little stores couldn't keep up" and the district began to deteriorate, said Herbert Johl, chairman of the Historic District Commission, which controls external renovations of buildings within the historic districts in Ellicott City and Elkridge.

An "urban regeneration" effort began later that decade. Since then, "Ellicott City has been growing stronger and drawing more people," Maule said. "Businesses want to take advantage of that."

And so does Virga. After signing new partners, Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. is scheduled to open in November -- more than a year later than planned.

Bill Pastino, who opened Pastano's restaurant in the historic district in July and is a partner in the microbrewery, said Ellicott City is the best place in the county to start a business.

"Unlike a strip mall, it's more of a neighborhood. This area is growing and more people are finding it," Pastino said.

That will help the microbrewery, which the partners hope will attract patrons from such communities as Annapolis, Owings Mills, Pikesville, Bethesda and Rockville, Virga said.

The brew pub -- which will feature eight to 10 varieties of beer available for sale in barrels -- also will have a 166-seat restaurant.

Johl, of the Historic District Commission, said he is pulling for the brewery. "I think it'll be a nice touch for Ellicott City. The town has a good future, and I'd like to see it grow."

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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