True partnership at Savage Mill Howard County: Government backing, business know-how helped rescue retail incubator within renovated historic mill.

October 29, 1997

THE SAVAGE MILL looks like a worthwhile investment of private and public money after all.

Not too long ago, the partnership that transformed this early 19th-century textile mill into a retail center for arts and antiques appeared to be in serious trouble.

The Savage Mill Limited Partnership had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Its state and county loans of some $900,000 appeared to be in jeopardy.

It would have been unfortunate had the enterprise failed. The shopping center had become a pleasant place to shop and browse. It is one of Howard County's most popular tourist destinations.

The brick walls of the 200,000-square-foot complex exude history. The mill's antique stores, home furnishings shops and artworks fill the space with visual delight.

It is the closest thing Howard County has to an incubator for small retailers; most of its entrepreneurs cannot afford space at The Mall in Columbia.

So news that the partnership is overcoming its troubles is reason to celebrate.

The Savage Mill, which operated as a textile mill for more than a century and later became a warehouse, expects to turn a profit for the first time since it opened as a retail center 11 years ago.

No one is more relieved than Howard County government officials, who threw their financial support behind the project in 1990.

The county borrowed $600,000 from a state pool for the mill and lent $300,000 of its own money. Former County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo got the ball rolling on this financial arrangement. Her successor, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, followed through on the deal.

The executives may have hailed from opposite sides of the political aisle, but they understood the unique opportunity of this project. The mill's recent good fortunes make both administrations look wise.

The turnaround began two years ago, partly because of the efforts of Steven Adler, a large shareholder in the partnership and business adviser to the 40 shop owners.

Mr. Adler, a former owner of Big and Tall men's clothing stores, was brought in to help shop owners succeed.

His advice proved invaluable. Tenants have posted a healthy $15 million in sales so far this year, and occupancy is 100 percent -- with a waiting list, no less.

Savage Mill was only two-thirds full when Mr. Adler arrived. He recruited prospective shop owners to the center, helped them develop business plans, linked them to banks and found other resources they need to get going and remain viable.

Shop owners running businesses by themselves also help one another. They pull together in a spirit reminiscent of old Main Streets, minding their neighbors' stores as well as their own when asked.

One profitable year does not guarantee long-term success, but the Savage Mill partnership deserves credit for working to improve the financial outlook for its shop owners and the center.

County officials also should be commended for not giving up on this ambitious business venture that has brought both historic preservation and prosperity to southeast Howard.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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