Savage Mill expecting its first profit 40-shop center is retail incubator for artist-owners

'People come here to buy'

Furniture, craft stores are owner-operated, started on shoestring

October 26, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Once known mainly as a historic preservation project, Savage Mill has transformed itself into a 40-shop retail enterprise that is expected to turn a profit for the first time this year.

The former 19th century textile mill near U.S. 1 and Route 32 in Howard County has become a retail incubator for the artist-turned-entrepreneur. The 12-building, 200,000-square-foot, upscale shopping center is an eclectic mix of mostly furniture, craft and antiques shops that are owner-operated and started with minimal to moderate capital and limited know-how.

Its owners, the Savage Mill Limited Partnership, and the mill's staff of three have nurtured the fledging businesses enough that they had about $15 million in sales this year, the owners say. About 500,000 people visit the mill each year.

"A lot of these merchants couldn't get an appointment with the Columbia mall," said Steven Adler, the second-largest shareholder in the partnership and a business adviser to the mill's shop owners.

"We get to help people execute their dreams. Our business advice is value added to being here at Savage Mill," he said. "But ultimately, it's their business. They can do with it what they want."

Not every merchant succeeds, said Jay Winer, one of the mill's owners. His family bought the mill in 1950.

"We all work, struggle and we try as hard as we can, but not everyone makes it," Winer said. "We experience failure."

In the past 18 months, 20 businesses have signed leases at the mill, bringing it to 100 percent occupancy. There's a waiting list of about two dozen businesses seeking space at the mill, Adler said.

Frank Taylor, owner of Braylor's, a home furnishings store, said he relies heavily on the mill managers to help develop his business acumen.

The store opened in 1996 in 300 square feet of space, expanded to 1,100 square feet in January and grew to 1,400 square feet, in April, said Taylor, who has a degree in forestry and was a manager-buyer for a furnishings store in Virginia before quitting to open Braylor's at the mill.

"I knew immediately this is what I wanted to do," Taylor said. "Ifelt it in my stomach, my gut. Within two weeks of quitting my job, I signed a lease here -- without a business plan."

Taylor's goal for his business, which sells merchandise ranging from $4.95 knick-knacks to $20,000 Waterford chandeliers, is to open another shop in Annapolis or historic Ellicott City.

Country Interiors, another business at the mill, moved there in January from The Mall in Columbia. While at the mall, the home furnishings and accessories shop expanded into a second space that served as a gift shop.

But the business outgrew the mall, said manager Ginny McDowell, who has been with the store for 14 years.

"There's been a little bit of an adjustment moving here from the mall. The atmosphere here is warmer and more conducive to a furniture store like ours," she said of the mill, which smells of potpourri and has hardwood and carpeted floors.

There is a slight downside. "During the week, there are less people at Savage Mill than at the mall," she said. "But I have noticed that the people who visit the mall go to browse, while people come here to actually buy."

Weekdays are slow

Because Savage Mill is still viewed by many as a tourist attraction, weekday traffic is often slow, retailers said. Baltimore-area shoppers often consider visiting the mill a weekend day trip, not a typical mall to be visited during the week, Winer said.

Taylor, owner of Braylor's, said he might go three to four weekdays without making a sale but that on weekends there is standing room only.

Country Interiors probably had more business at the mall but is probably making more money at the mill because of the much lower rents, McDowell said.

One of the advantages of opening a shop at the mill is the break retailers receive on their leases. The typical price of a square foot of retail space in Howard County is $40 to $50. At Savage Mill, the range is $12 to $20, and some especially green retailers pay only a percentage of their sales for space, Adler said.

The space options include 10-by-20-foot booths and spaces ranging from 500 to 40,000 square feet. "Flexible space is key to the incubator concept," Winer said.

The complex was a textile mill from 1816 to 1947. From 1950 until 1983, it was warehouse space.

The partnership considered using the mill as a retail outlet mall but chose craft and antiques shops. "It was a compatible use with the mill's location and presentation," Winer said. "It's a beautiful, historic site."

The $12 million, three-phase, privately funded renovation project was started in 1985 and completed in 1993.

For a long time, the partnership struggled. The business ran at a deficit and occupancy was low, Adler said. Two years ago, the mill was 65 percent occupied when Adler, a former owner of a regional group of Big and Tall men's clothing shops, was hired to help the shopping center's businesses.

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