Town eyes upscale Main Street

Business leaders strive for an Ellicott City that's classy, `not flea-markety'

July 08, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Some of the largest floor space available on Ellicott City's Main Street is going to an antiques dealer and an interior designer, two businesses that observers say will distinguish Main Street and further establish it as a location for offices as well as retail stores.

Creative Access, an interior design business, will relocate its headquarters from Catonsville to 3,500 square feet in what had been the Farmers & Mechanics Bank building. Regency Antiques, an antiques and reproductions shop on Howard Street in Baltimore, will expand in a new direction with art, home furnishings and lighting at Regency Galleries on the first floor of the firehouse.

Lisa DeVries of Waverly Real Estate, who leased both spaces, said she believes those stores reflect a change in the image of Main Street.

"I think we're seeing a shift from some of the Beanie Baby dealers to some retail and office users that would create a draw to Ellicott City," she said. "Part of the process of acquiring a more upscale tenant is we charged top dollar in rent. The rents are the most expensive rents in Ellicott City," at more than $20 a square foot.

Main Street traditionally has been an area of commerce, but in recent decades the area that had been the center of shopping for a large community struggled as large malls nearby pulled customers away.

Although the area has attracted attention as a collection of unusual shops and boutiques, as the county population has become wealthier, Main Street has not been able to position itself as a destination for more affluent clients.

But that might be changing.

A few high-end housing developments are scheduled for the area, including the 800-home community of Worthington Fields that is being developed less than a mile from Main Street.

Oella Mill, which had served as low-cost office space for artists, merchants and advertising firms across the river, is being renovated as an apartment complex.

"It seems to be the last two or three years that a trend is occurring," said Jared Spahn, president of Ellicott City Business Association. "The growth of high-end residential developments around the historic district creates demand for high-end commercial activity."

Main Street's buildings are owned by investors and businesspeople who typically do not collaborate on the community's development. But Donald R. Reuwer Jr. -- who owns or has interest in several properties, including the two that rented recently -- has made a point of trying to woo retailers that have a following to the historic town.

"What we're trying to do is have something unique and different and not flea-markety," he said. "That's good for the whole town. The people that are going to spend big money on furnishing are going to spend big money on restaurants. But there are still lots of other little shops."

The Ellicott City Business Association also has been doing its part to change the image of the town. Last year, the association began several beautification initiatives, including regular street sweeping and placing of potted plants on the sidewalks.

They continue this year with programs to bring old-fashioned lampposts to the street and create a uniform, brick-paved sidewalk in front of Main Street stores. Several of the stores already have brick pavement from a program several years ago in which the county installed the bricks at cost to merchants who wanted to purchase them. The group is hoping to revive that program and allow merchants another chance to make the sidewalks more uniform.

"It's all part of our beautification plan to enhance Ellicott City as a tourist, shopping and dining destination," Spahn said.

All those things make a difference in changing the image and raising the property values, DeVries said. Newly renovated apartments above Main Street stores are being leased for $800 to $900 a month, she said.

"The people who are coming in are really making a big commitment," she said.

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