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Exodus of downtown businesses has subsided

January 18, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

It may be too early to declare victory, but the exodus of businesses from downtown Hagerstown that characterized past years has subsided.

The downtown business district did lose some longtime businesses in 2003 - The Jeweler's Daughter on the Square, and the Washington Spy restaurant on East Antietam - and some that hadn't operated long, such as H2O, a bar on North Potomac Street. But they were outnumbered by the new businesses that have opened.

Nearly a dozen new businesses have opened in the past year, including clothing stores, restaurants and gift shops.

One of them, T.G. Designs on South Potomac Street, had operated for a while at the North Potomac Street location currently occupied by The Boutique, a new clothing store. T.G. Designs had closed its downtown location, opting to operate solely from its Longmeadow Road location north of Hagerstown.

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But owner Troy Gifft said he decided to reopen downtown because "I missed my clientele that I had built up down here, and I wanted to offer my product downtown again. A lot of people who work downtown don't have time to go to the other location." Since returning, he said, "I have had a lot of new clientele."

Another established business downtown opened a second location last month. The Gourmet Goat, on East Franklin Street across from City Hall, opened the Gourmet Goat II at 101 W. Franklin St.

Owners Paul Deputy and Steven Cook found that because of short lunch hours, a lot of would-be customers didn't have time to walk from their offices to the restaurant, so they decided to take the restaurant to them - opening close enough to county offices on Washington Street to make their menu available quickly.

Right now, the Gourmet Goat II is offering gourmet coffee and other specialty items, with plans to offer its full menu in a few weeks.

In the meantime, customers may pre-order items from the full menu, and the staff will prepare it at the original location and take it to the new shop for pick-up.

V.I.P. Mobility, which sells scooters and other items for the disabled, opened last summer on South Potomac Street, in space formerly occupied by The Glass Shop.

"Our experience downtown has been phenomenal," said co-owner Connie Daley. She said she and partner Pat Mayhew were firm believers in downtown Hagerstown. "We would love to see downtown come back," she said.

Daley added that the shop's customer base "has been excellent," drawing clients not only from downtown, but from around the region.

"We've had people from Hancock and McConnellsburg (Pa.)," she said.

The Boutique on North Potomac Street opened at about the same time.

"I really thought about" locating downtown, owner Shana Ringer said. "But this type of business doesn't belong in a strip mall. And I truly believe in our downtown."

Ringer said perceived parking problems downtown haven't materialized for her customers.

"You don't walk any farther here than you do from Penney's down to Hecht's" at Valley Mall, she said, adding that spaces usually are available on Franklin Street or in the parking deck or nearby lots.

"I had a very good first season," Ringer said. "I started small and I have repeat customers."

Word of mouth has brought customers to the shop, she said, noting that one customer said she'd seen someone wearing an outfit from The Boutique to a Maryland Symphony concert at The Maryland Theatre, and decided to shop there herself.

"And we get so many people from out of town - Chambersburg (Pa.), Frederick (Md.), I even had a lady from Bunker Hill (W.Va.)."

Hub City General Store opened on West Washington Street just before Christmas, in space formerly occupied by the Morninglory Emporium. The shop offers a variety of gourmet teas and coffees, hard candy, baked goods and crafts.

Co-owner Shannon Monninger credited partner Steven Kendall with suggesting the downtown location.

"He liked downtown; he really saw the potential," Monninger said.

Downtown business became a family affair for Tom Edwards, his wife Renae, and their son and daughter-in-law, Tremell and Judith Edwards. In the past year, the Edwards family has started four new businesses on West Franklin Street: Edwards Furniture, Edwards Wings n' Things restaurant, Rhema Wear clothing store and a Dollar Store adjacent to the furniture store.

"What drew us downtown was the location," Tom Edwards said. "We've taken a great liking to downtown." Edwards said the family has found a good customer base among downtown shoppers.

Hagerstown Economic Development Director Deborah Everhart credited the anticipated opening of the University of Maryland Center on West Washington Street with creating interest in downtown venues.

"There's been a lot of interest, from coffee and sandwich shops to whether they need housing," Everhart said.

Additionally, she noted that the city's incentive packages for downtown development, including sign and facade grants and partnerships for advertising and special events has drawn business into the district.

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