Howard Grinches fading

Renewal: A fire in November stole Christmas for only a few Ellicott City retailers, and stores that were destroyed are being replaced.

January 03, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Laura Mazelis got a workout trying to wipe the outdated Christmas Grinch off the doorway to the Margaret Smith Gallery on Main Street in Ellicott City the other day.

She rubbed and sprayed, sprayed and rubbed, but the acrylic Grinch -- mean, green and all scrunched up as if sneaking down a chimney -- came off slowly, feet first.

It did come off, and serves as a metaphor for the real-life Grinch that threatened Christmas this year: the fire Nov. 9 that destroyed five businesses and four apartments on Main Street across from the gallery.

Some merchants complained of slow business in the weeks after the fire, blaming public perception that all of Main Street had burned, rather than a small part.

But most merchants say business picked up. Some said they had a banner year. As plans for restoration of the burned buildings move forward, most feel certain Main Street will one day be restored to its former fully picturesque state, without a trace of fire or destruction.

Margaret Smith, owner of the gallery that bears her name and president of the Howard County Tourism Council, said business was slow for her at the beginning of the Christmas season, which she blames in part on mistaken public perception that Main Street was completely closed after the fire.

"We had a lot of negative publicity after the fire," she said. "Here at the gallery, and at the tourism council, we got a lot of strange phone calls. People were asking, `Is Ellicott City open?' `Is anybody there?' "

The answers were yes and yes. Only the businesses that burned -- Main Street Blues, Rugs to Riches, Legends, the Nature Nook, Spring House Design -- were gone. All the others were open.

Most merchants, like Smith, seemed happy with the way the season turned out. But at least one felt otherwise. Bobbi Altevogt, manager of Discoveries for the past eight years, complained that business was down an estimated 30 percent.

"People really thought that more burned than did," she said. But she was optimistic overall: "This town has been through so many disasters, and it always comes back."

Sales unaffected

Marlene Goode, an employee of Country Crafters on Main Street, said the fire did not seem to damage that store's business.

"We had the fire, then right after the fire we had spectators coming in," she said. "Then it died down for a little while, and then it got good again. We did really well for Christmas."

Nancy Gibson, co-owner of Forget-Me-Not-Factory on Main Street, said a lot of people called her to make sure she was open after the fire.

"It looks like we had our best December ever," she said.

In the eyes of historic preservationists, another Grinch threatened Main Street in the weeks after the fire: fear that one of the burned buildings would be rebuilt in a nonhistoric manner that would clash with the rest of Main Street.

Jared Spahn, co-owner of Old Town Construction on Main Street -- the business in charge of rebuilding one of the burned buildings and restoring another -- said that is no longer a concern.

Restrictions tried

The building that suffered the most damage, which used to house Rugs to Riches and Legends, needs to be razed and rebuilt, he said. State officials tried to place restrictions on the new building because it's in a flood plain.

State building regulations said it had to be eight feet off the ground -- which would clash with the rest of historic Main Street. But he said county officials fought to get a waiver to ensure that the street's historic facade would be preserved.

Before the waiver was obtained last week, Spahn said, the building design called for a small garage under the building -- an idea, he said, that upset some historical preservationists.

"They're happy now," he said.

Plans for renewal

He said demolition of the building is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 10 and will continue for about four days during the day. He said Bruce Taylor, owner of the building, wanted to put off construction activity until after Christmas to avoid adding congestion to Main Street during the Christmas season. "Dr. Taylor was very concerned about disturbing Christmas shopping," Spahn said.

"He did not want any of the shopkeepers to be hurt by us doing construction. He wanted to make sure he did not slow traffic."

Repairs to the building that used to house Spring House Design, he said, are scheduled to begin this week.He said it might be ready for tenants in 90 days, while the Taylor building might not be ready before fall.

Owners of the building that houses Main Street Blues have not returned phone calls.

Making dreams come true

While merchants tallied Christmas sales, and Spahn filled out county permits to get Taylor's building razed, Mazelis continued wiping the Grinch off the door of the Margaret Smith Gallery and made plans for a new painting.

For the new year, she said, she planned to decorate the door with Sorcerer Mickey -- a Mickey, familiar to Disney fans, who wields a magic wand and can make dreams come true.

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