100 days after flood, ‘new normal’ for Ellicott City businesses
Mojan Bagha, who sells handmade rugs from around the world, knows the risk of doing business in historic Ellicott City.
Flooding is part of the history of the 244-year-old town.
The July 30 flash flood that dumped 6 inches of rain in two hours did not deter Bagha from reopening his store, Main Street Oriental Rugs, this past weekend.
“The phoenix rises from the ashes,” said Bagha, who emigrated from Iran in 1977. “A business owner takes risks. I wouldn’t be a business owner otherwise.”
One hundred days after the flood that killed two people and caused millions of dollars in damage, Main Street business still face a long return to normalcy as the holiday shopping season opens.
Fewer than half of the businesses on Main Street have reopened since the county lifted a state of emergency a month ago.
“We are lacking the critical mass that will make Ellicott City work,” said Tom Coale, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership.
The nonprofit is distributing some $1.3 million in donations received from the United Way and other sources since the flood.
“Things are moving into a new normal,” said Coale. “Until we get that critical mass, it’ll be hard to see where we are going.”
Some businesses on the town’s high ground reopened in early October. Others in the lower area of the district are not returning to their original locations because there are financial constraints or uncertain timetables.
Joan Eve, owner of an antiques store on the lower end of town that remains largely boarded up, has no estimate when her store might be ready to reopen. But she remains optimistic.
“I’m anxious to come back,” Eve said. “Main Street is where I belong.”
The Caplan building, the former department store that housed the clothing bou- tique Sweet Elizabeth Jane, remains vacant. It will likely open around March, but the boutique is moving to another location on Main Street.
Don Reuwer Jr. is president of Waverly Real Estate Group, which owns several buildings on Main Street. He said he is confident the town will come back “stronger than ever.”
Buildings that have been renovated are now better protected against floods, he said. Some of those were “in dire need of repair.”
The vacancy rate on Main Street in 2014 was 10 percent, and lower in the years before, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Business and property owners are looking to state and county officials to make improvements in the district. Since the flood, the county has begun $3.8 million in flood management projects. In September, President Barack Obama approved federal disaster aid for Ellicott City.
The county is conducting a hydrology and drainage analysis and a case study of the area’s streams, and county officials say the Army Corps of Engineers is working on recommendations on how to flood-proof buildings.
Some in the commercial district say the flood could trigger changes in clientele, businesses and the character of the town.
“Old shop owners are giving way to a new generation, and that generation is targeting their peers,” Reuwer said. “People who would’ve hung on have decided it’s time for the next generation to take over.
“If you were thinking about retiring, the flood made that decision for you.”
“We are going through a massive reboot. The vacancies give us a little bit of pause,” said Nicholas Johnson, owner of Su Casa, a Main Street furniture store that opened about a month ago.
Yet Johnson hopes the character of the district won’t change too much.
“There’s a certain type of business that’s attracted to Ellicott City,” he said. “They are smaller and owner-operated. That will stay the same.”