State pledges business aid for Mt. Airy

Owners of buildings, shops hope to reopen stores destroyed by fire

September 11, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

State economic, housing and community development officials toured Mount Airy's devastated Main Street yesterday, encouraging the owners of businesses destroyed in last week's fire to calculate rebuilding costs that are not covered by insurance so state agencies can help fill in with designated grants and low-interest loans.

"You need to know up front what the expenditure is," Samuel J. Lloyd, the state's assistant secretary for small business, told store owners and town officials during a meeting at Town Hall. "You've got to know where you stand with the insurance companies."

State officials met with the developers of downtown's demolished Bohn Building and the burned-out Watkins Building, suggesting that the latter's historic brick facade could be saved through neighborhood preservation grants as the rest of the property is reconstructed.

On Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley's office promised state aid to help Mount Airy recover.

As workers were still bracing and boarding up the charred Watkins Building yesterday afternoon, the damaged area of Main Street remained closed to traffic.

Mayor Frank M. Johnson said the road should be reopened by midafternoon today, once work is completed to make sure the building doesn't collapse.

A third building, housing the Olde Town Restaurant and upstairs apartments, will be gutted after sustaining extensive smoke and water damage in the three-alarm fire that caused more than $4 million in damage, authorities said.

Staci and Dan Caiola, both 24, who met at the Culinary Institute of America, had purchased the Olde Town Restaurant in June and recently had their first child.

"We jumped into this with everything we've got," Dan Caiola said while touring the site. "My goal is to reopen by the holidays, if not the first of the year."

Facade improvement grants, which would pay for up to half the costs of rebuilding and renovating the historic exteriors of the Watkins and Olde Town buildings, are available, officials from the state Department of Housing and Community Development said.

Mount Airy currently has $150,000 in facade funds, but more could be acquired to supplement the rebuilding efforts not covered by insurance, Johnson said.

The facade grants are an incentive "to renovate the building so it's historically correct," said Kevin Baynes, director of programs and regional development for housing and community development's neighborhood revitalization division. "The state can and will partner with the town to rise from the ashes."

About $200,000 or $250,000 in state Community Legacy grants could be available for Mount Airy, in addition to other economic development and planning funds, Johnson said.

The Maryland Small Business Development Center has assigned Beth Woodring, its Carroll County case manager, to set up shop temporarily in Mount Airy Town Hall to assist displaced businesses.

A representative from the Maryland Insurance Administration will be on site tomorrow to help store owners process insurance claims, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Rob Scranton, the owner and developer of the Bohn Building, hopes to set up a temporary downtown trailer park for the displaced businesses over the next month.

Before the Sept. 2 fire, Scranton was scheduled to break ground on a new mixed retail space to include an upscale restaurant and plaza next door to the Bohn Building. Now Scranton said he is planning one large redevelopment project to join the two commercial lots.

The business trailers will be set up on the parking lot that surrounds the old town train station, Scranton's partner, developer Brian A. Gallagher said.

But Gallagher said it could cost $20,000 to $30,000 to set up the trailers there.

Lloyd, of the small business division, said all those costs should be forwarded to state agencies.

"That's part of the equation we're going to have to understand," Lloyd said.

To prevent future catastrophes, Richard J. Brand, the financial assistance administrator for the Maryland Historical Trust, encouraged business owners and town officials to check the code compliance of electrical fixtures and the structures of all standing historic buildings.

"One failure can damage a lot," Brand said.

Sherri Johnson, the owner of one of the destroyed boutiques in the Bohn Building, said she needs grants or no-interest loans now to reorder inventory, computers and fixtures so that she can reopen in a trailer within the month.

"I'm willing to stick my neck out there and buy everything again, but I don't have enough credit left to do it," Johnson said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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