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Private purveyor picks Hagerstown

August 31, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Don't be fooled by his inventory of pink flamingo sculptures and skull-shaped coffee mugs. For a guy who makes his living selling novelties, Steve Colby can be a surprisingly serious guy.

Colby e-mailed me after reading my recent columns about developer Manny Shaool's plans to build a center selling everything from bathroom fixtures to floor coverings in downtown Hagerstown. Colby wants to sell things too, but nothing as essential as a kitchen sink at Off the Deep End, located in the old R.D. McKee Building at 339 W. Antietam.

There's no showroom yet, because Colby can't find a contractor willing to renovate his property.

"They come by and look at it and then they don't come back," he said.

But if you see something you like at www.offthedeepend.com, you can order it on-line and pick it up there between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Colby said he had operated a shop in Frederick for about 10 years, but when it came time for him to expand, city officials there weren't much help.

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Not so in Hagerstown, where Tim Riford, formerly with the Washington County Economic Development Department, gave him the "royal carpet treatment."

Not that everything that happened in Frederick was bad. Colby said Harvey Scheetz, the legendary ghost hunter who appeared on the David Letterman show, among others, introduced him to his wife Sally.

"It was love at first sight, if there is such a thing," Colby said.

In Frederick, the Colbys had specialized in 1940s and '50s kitsch - things like lawn flamingos and unusual furniture.

"I was familiar with some of it from growing up around it (he's 53) but a lot of it was the colors and the fun. If you liked flamingos then, you weren't in the mainstream. It kind of had an anti-button-down theme," he said.

His merchandise now is new, with nautical or pirate-style themes, all of which he said sells well with the "parrotheads" as the fans of singer Jimmy Buffet are known.

"We kind of got a feeling two years ago that pirates were going to go hot, although we never imagined there was going to be a new movie (Pirates of the Caribbean) about them," he said.

He would like to redo the front of the old McKee building to resemble a wharf, complete with docks and nautical accessories and call the whole thing "Port Royal Trading Company at Hagerstown Harbor."

But that building was one of their last choices, he said. They'd hoped for something right downtown, but because so much of their merchandise is shipped in on large trucks, they couldn't find a place with docks and sufficient turnaround space.

Colby said that they found some of the buildings that are for sale aren't multiple-listed, so the only way you can find out what's available is to drive around and look for signs.

"The real estate people kind of keep them in their hip pocket," Colby said.

And some owners of vacant buildings that did fill the bill wouldn't call him back to discuss prices or terms, he said.

When they decided to look seriously at the McKee building, they talked to owner Arthur Rozes, who Colby said was asking a fairly high price for it, even though it had been vacant for nine years.

"We offered him a significant amount less and he took it," Colby said.

On one floor of the building, Colby plans his Internet goods inventory, but on another he'd like to have a retail store and a pirate museum, though he says it would be more about movie pirates than historical buccaneers.

"We hope to make this a destination and that people will want to come and spend time here," he said.

"We believe in Hagerstown. Architecturally it's a gem." he said.

He attended meetings of downtown merchants and city officials for a while, but feels that they sometimes get too focused on one thing, like the Greater Hagerstown Committee's push for market-rate housing downtown.

The Hagerstown Home Store, which helps people buy homes in the city, is a great thing, he said, but there also needs to be a Hagerstown Small Business Store.

Such a store could help would-be businesspeople find space, access loan packages, locate contractors willing to work with old buildings and perhaps most important, keep helping them after they begin work.

In his own experience, city and county officials make a good first impression, but don't have the time or the staff to help businesses do things like finding wholesalers or other related issues.

But Colby says he's committed to doing more than just complaining about what isn't happening now.

"I think Hagerstown has got everything going for it. I'd like to be involved and offer what I can," he said.

Can a warehouse that's been vacant for almost a decade become a destination attraction for Hagerstown? Steve Colby's put his money into the idea and is willing to invest more, if only he can get a contractor. If city officials don't call him Monday morning and try to help him find one, shame on them.

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