Savage Mill survives lean years to shine as financial success

Retail complex pays back public loan, looks toward an expansion

`We're pretty fortunate'

January 09, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of financial struggle to convert a 19th-century sail-making mill into a modern retail enterprise, the owners of Savage Mill are celebrating the passage of a milestone.

A $900,000 public loan - restructured three years ago to ease the burden of payments - was paid in full last week. Plans call for adding a larger catering hall at the mill, in the U.S. 1 corridor near Route 32.

"I wanted Howard County out of the picture - off the hook. We're putting to bed a piece of our past," said Steven H. Adler, managing partner of the mill.

Adler presented County Executive James N. Robey with a ceremonial check for nearly $1 million Sunday night at a "Holiday Survival Party" that Savage Mill's management holds for merchants in the 12-building complex, which houses gift shops, antiques stores, artists' studios, restaurants and a banquet hall.

"I'm very pleased they were able to pay this loan off. It's a treasure," Robey said of the Savage Mill complex.

Candace Coen, executive director of the Howard County Tourism Council, said Savage Mill is among Maryland's top 25 tourist attractions. "It's a really exciting example of revitalization," she said.

Adler said annual revenues have increased from $10 million in 1995 to $26 million last year, adding that the number of visitors to Savage Mill is up to nearly a million people a year. "We're pretty fortunate," he said.

The first decade of restoration, starting in 1984, was uphill, and the idea of a public loan that would leave county and state government vulnerable if the project failed was a source of debate, said Richard W. Story, executive director of Howard County Economic Development Authority.

The loan was granted, against the recommendations of county economic development officials, Story said, but the project's future remained uncertain. Savage Mill was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1994 when a company that bought the mill partnership's loans refused to extend a payment deadline.

The County Council restructured the loan in December 1997, again facing criticism that the county could be left holding the bag if the project failed.

"The biggest problem all along is there was no significant track record of stability and success. It was patched and pieced together financially," Adler said.

But thanks to the economic boom of the late 1990s and the persistent efforts of partners Jay Winer and Adler, all the space is leased, revenues are up and Savage Mill is a destination for people interested in antiques and collectibles.

"They've made tremendous strides from where they were. They found a great niche and deserve a lot of credit," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, whose North Laurel-Savage district includes Savage Mill.

Adler said a new, low-interest loan arranged with United Bank of Switzerland will provide more working capital for the next project at Savage Mill. The partnership owns 7 acres off the mill's west parking lot that it hopes will become the site of a 700-person- capacity catering hall. - double the size of the current ballroom.

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