Downtown Frederick might have weathered the worst
New businesses, projects help keep historic Frederick district afloat
Margaret Lebherz says she had to save up everything to open her shop in downtown Frederick including her gumption.
Lebherz found it difficult to get a loan to launch Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium on North Market Street, but one of the toughest parts was just "having the nerve to start it."
"I hear that it's such a big risk, but I did all my research," said Lebherz, whose store opened in June.
Compared with other communities nationwide that have historic downtowns, Frederick's weathered the Great Recession better than many, said Richard G. Griffin.
Griffin, director of the city's department of economic development, acknowledged some turnover in downtown businesses, including the closing of stores such as King's Men's Wear on North Market Street. But turnover happens "in good times and in bad," he said.
One factor in the downtown's favor has been the city's relatively low unemployment rate 6.9 percent in May, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
That was lower than other Maryland cities with similar downtown areas, including Hagerstown, whose unemployment rate in May was 10.6 percent, and Salisbury, whose rate was 7.7 percent.
Downtown Frederick is home to more than 600 organizations and businesses with more than 5,000 employees, Griffin said. Projects such as the Carroll Creek development and the "wayfinding" signage system the city has worked on with Downtown Frederick Partnership are among the steps taken to entice businesses to come downtown.
Kara Norman, the partnership's executive director, said she has heard from people in other cities about the loss of small businesses, which makes her feel fortunate downtown Frederick has not suffered the same fate.
"We still have a ways to go before we're back to where we were before" the recession, she noted.
Like many groups, Norman's organization has faced budget cuts, but it decided to maintain its advertising spending. Besides seeking additional sponsorships, the group has tapped its "rainy day fund" to maintain its promotional efforts, she said.
Regardless of the state of the economy, Norman said, she thinks running a small business is a challenge.
"They are usually the primary staff to that business," she said of small-business owners. "They're there every day for long hours."
Norman said downtown Frederick's success will continue.
"Despite the economy and despite the fact that things haven't been exactly what we wanted them to be, I still think that you can point to downtown Frederick as an extremely successful business district," she said.
Private investments in downtown Frederick total about $120 million, Griffin said. Although those investments slowed because of the recession, he said, the city plans to move forward with the various projects those funds are paying for as economic recovery continues.
"If people don't perceive that an area is healthy ... they don't want to invest in it," Griffin said.
The city tries to maintain a downtown ratio of 80 percent independent businesses to 20 percent chains such as Subway, Starbucks and Ben & Jerry's, he said. Griffin pegged the current ratio at 95 percent to 5 percent in favor of independent businesses.
Several new stores recently opened in downtown Frederick and foot traffic has increased, which he attributed partly to the recession.
More people "are not traveling as much to more distant locations and they're looking for day excursions," Griffin said, adding he thinks many downtown merchants are accepting a new economic mantra that "flat is the new up."
Patricia Latkovski said she recently has been "working twice as hard" with her business, Alicia L, a clothing boutique on North Market Street. Latkovski has worked in downtown Frederick for 32 years and said she has extended her hours to be more accommodating and attract new customers.
Latkovski, like others, said she thinks downtown Frederick's proximity to Washington, D.C., and the presence of large employers such as Bechtel boost business for merchants.
"If the number one complaint is there's no parking, that's a good sign," she said.
The historic downtown environment makes properties there more valuable, she said.
"You can build a property anywhere, but you can't build a 100-year-old downtown," Latkovski said.