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New businesses bet on downtown Hagerstown

November 30, 1999|By TAMELA BAKER

As work began on his rehabilitation of three South Potomac Street properties in 2004, local developer Don Bowman predicted his investment would draw more enterprises downtown.

While work on the Bowman project continues ? he recently projected an August opening date for the planned dining and office space ? he appears to have been an accurate prophet. New projects and new businesses have been sprouting up all around downtown Hagerstown, a commercial center that until recently suffered from decades of decline as more and more anchor businesses moved out.

At least a dozen new shops and restaurants opened in the downtown core during 2006, according to Deborah Everhart, Hagerstown's economic development coordinator. Plans are in the works for more, she said.

Although observers say the activity downtown is changing perceptions and spurring new ventures, even those with the most invested acknowledge starting a business there still isn't a sure thing.

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"It is a risk," Everhart said, noting that for individual retailers, opening a shop downtown can require an investment of "their life savings and their personality. You have to admire them."

Mike Deming, a developer with about a dozen buildings and several businesses downtown, has said there are bound to be some failures. Success, he added, comes from "finding spaces and putting what people need in them. ... there's successes all over the town ? it's possible. It's a matter of finding out what works."

Open for business

One retailer who took the plunge last year is Carlen Loy, proprietor of Piedmont Gifts in Hager's Row, a nook of retail space off South Potomac Street.

"We opened in April last year ... business was kind of slow in the beginning," she said. "But towards Christmas, business really picked up."

Now, she said, "I'm very happy to be downtown; I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm enjoying life down here."

More recently, Ronald Sheppard opened Philly's, a sandwich shop and ice cream parlor on the corner of Summit Avenue and West Franklin Street. Philly's offers breakfast foods, homemade pies and cakes and all-natural juices, Sheppard said. After nearly three months, he said business is good ? though it was a little slow at first.

Sheppard is a man with a plan. Later this month, he's adding a grill so he can offer the cheese steak sandwiches for which his native Philadelphia is known. Beyond that, "I'm gonna be here forever," Sheppard said.

Valerie Minteer, with her husband Charles Stewart, opened her second downtown business in 2006. Bones & Cones Dessertery, on Public Square, offers ice cream and baked goods for people and pets.

"Actually, in regard to business, it has been phenomenal," said Minteer, who also operates Cloak & Cupboard Antiques ? on the other side of the square ? with her mother.

Minteer said both businesses have been well received by both customers and other downtown merchants.

"We have customers who just love our shops," she said. "I would not consider going into a mall situation."

'No place I'd rather be'

But while Minteer says she's noticed an increase in foot traffic at her shops, getting started hasn't been without its challenges.

"It takes a long time," she said. "Half the battle is marketing and awareness."

Initially, Minteer said, "We found it difficult to gather information." So she and some others started a grass-roots merchants group called Destination Hagerstown, and a cooperative advertising tool called Around the Square.

"We're very proud of this," Minteer said. "We're really gonna start pulling out all the stops. We're formalizing and will incorporate."

Minteer said 18 businesses now are involved in Around the Square advertising.

"So far, it's working great," she said.

It's still a bit of a gamble to open a downtown business, Minteer said.

"We fell in love with the downtown; we knew it was on the cusp ? it's not there yet," she said. "It's a little bit of crossing your fingers and trying to hold on."

That, Everhart said, "is why the city has always budgeted money to partner with downtown businesses. That's why we have city initiatives like sign and facade grants" for businesses that are updating their outside images ? programs Minteer said she took advantage of and would like to see expanded because of rising costs.

Everhart said she could tell downtown Hagerstown was changing when she and her husband ventured downtown for dinner at the Schmankerl Stube on a recent Saturday night.

"There were people everywhere," she said. "Duffy's was packed ... there's an upswing in nighttime traffic."

While business seems to be picking up, downtown redevelopment will "never be to the point where it's 'finished,'" Everhart cautioned.

Still, Minteer said, "there's absolutely no place I'd rather be than downtown."

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