Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007

New businesses eye the future on the fringe of success

Restaurants, shops bring new life to section of Georgia Avenue seeking an identity and hoping to thrive

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Estela Velez of Fairfax, Va., dances the flamenco Thursday night at Taste of Jerusalem in Silver Spring. The Georgia Avenue restaurant is one of a handful of new restaurants and retail shopsbringing new life to south Silver Spring.
Visitors to Georgia Avenue in the last few years may have noticed a marked difference in the corridor’s offerings — an upscale clothing boutique, flamenco dancing and dinner served by pirates, all within blocks of each other.

But business owners along the strip say there is still much work to do before they can draw the same crowds that frequent downtown Silver Spring’s Ellsworth Drive.

‘‘Up and down this street, it’s not completely developed yet,” said Kamal Hawa, owner of the Taste of Jerusalem restaurant, 8123 Georgia Ave., which opened 15 months ago.

Hawa said he chose his current site because the closer to Ellsworth Drive he looked, the more expensive the buildings’ rents became. An entrepreneur needs at least $250,000 in startup money to open a business even where Hawa is located, he said.

To bring in more customers, Hawa invites local flamenco dancers to perform every Thursday night. He said he has been doing ‘‘so-so” financially.

‘‘There are some more serious businesses coming in that could bring more people down,” he said.

Businesses like Hawa’s are betting on long-term success in Silver Spring, hoping that that customer traffic will improve. They can take advantage of lower rents away from the Ellsworth Drive area if they can lure customers a few blocks south.

Any business decision, whether in a successful or transitioning part of town, is a risk, said Jerry Pasternak, who worked for former County Executive Douglas Duncan for 12 years in negotiating the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring. While success breeds success, he said, business owners need a forward-thinking vision of the potential in a community. Both the AFI Silver Theatre and the Discovery Communications building moved into downtown Silver Spring before it was bringing the crowds seen today, he said.

‘‘They both had visions of not what Silver Spring looked like, but what it could look like, and came at a time when many companies wouldn’t even consider it,” said Pasternak, now a government relations consultant for Bethesda law firm Garson Claxton.

Hawa noted that his business is surrounded by change. Two new restaurants, Nicaro and Olazzo, are expected to open within the next month. Pieces of Silver Spring, a clothing boutique at 8201 Georgia Ave., and the Piratz Tavern, 8402 Georgia Ave., opened within the last year.

‘‘It takes time for people to notice what’s happening, and then to make plans and develop those plans,” Silver Spring’s central business district liaison Mel Tull said. ‘‘It’s an entrepreneurial thing. These are people who say, ‘I think my business would fit nicely here.’”

Andy Boles, general manager at Nicaro, which occupies the former space of Rodeo Restaurant at 8229 Georgia Ave., said the corridor could use more businesses that catered to the ‘‘after-work crowd.” He was particularly excited about plans for a restaurant and brewpub on the site of the old Silver Spring firehouse.

‘‘It’s important to get people away from Ellsworth [Drive] and over here,” Boles said.

The owner and executive chef of Nicaro, which is expected to open this fall, is Silver Spring resident Pedro Matamoros, whom Boles said has a built-in fan base from his work as executive chef at the Tabard Inn in Washington, D.C.

‘‘We thought it would do well here, where there was a demand for a more upscale, fine-dining restaurant ... and a lot of new development in the area,” Boles said.

Roberto Pietrobono, co-owner of Olazzo, said he had been looking at the spot where Moby Dick House of Kabob moved in on Ellsworth Drive, but he found that Georgia Avenue was much cheaper. Pietrobono said there was almost a $10,000 difference in rents. Boles said his monthly rent was around $10,000.

Pietrobono’s casual Italian restaurant, which is co-owned by his brother, Riccardo, is set to open in several weeks at the old Half Moon Barbecue space at 8235 Georgia Ave. It is the brothers’ second restaurant; the first opened in Bethesda five years ago.

‘‘At the time, you couldn’t really beat Bethesda,” said Pietrobono, who lives in Wheaton. ‘‘It would probably have been busier on Ellsworth [Drive], but there’s the thought that eventually people will get tired of that downtown part of town.”

Drawing customers south

Streetscape work could bring more foot traffic to Georgia Avenue and improve the appearance of the corridor, said Gary Stith, director of the county-government’s Silver Spring Regional Center, which oversees development issues. It has been about 30 years since streetscaping was done along Georgia Avenue, he said.

But Charles Atwell, a former chairman of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Urban District Advisory Committee, said he didn’t believe in the notion that downtown Silver Spring had to be focused around Ellsworth Drive, which he called the ‘‘chain” side of the downtown, he said.

The rest of the central business district was developing its own personality, Atwell said, and should be marketed that way.

‘‘There’s enough there now to accommodate everybody,” Atwell said, adding that future projects like the proposed new Silver Spring Library development, a reinvigorated Ripley Street and signs promoting the area could enhance Georgia Avenue as a self-sustaining business area. ‘‘The important thing now is keeping momentum up, and pushing for more in the area.”

Jerry McCoy, president of the Silver Spring Historical Society, said it would take some time for people to venture out of the ‘‘safety bubble” of the Ellsworth Drive area. Pockets of success, like Jackie’s Restaurant, 8081 Georgia Ave., and new development, like Montgomery College’s new school of art and design at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and East West Highway, help enliven the street, he said.

‘‘The more foot traffic we see down there, the more businesses will follow that foot traffic,” McCoy said. ‘‘It’s a work in progress.”

Tull said it wasn’t about competing with downtown Silver Spring as much as it was about expanding Silver Spring’s appeal.

‘‘Up and down Georgia [Avenue] and Colesville [Road], those blocks offer the next great opportunity,” Tull said. ‘‘Now it’s not a question of what businesses are needed, but what businesses will come in and take advantage of the fact that the people are already here.”

One such business could be an old name — a Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy Company store. Neal Lieberman, the CEO of the company, which has its corporate offices in Silver Spring, said he was looking at several sites in Silver Spring, including Georgia Avenue. Gifford’s opened its original store at Georgia and Sligo avenues in 1938, but closed in 1985 after several years of financial struggles under then-owner Bob Gifford, the son of the company’s founder John Gifford. That site is now home to Quality Time Early Learning Center.

Tull mentioned several businesses moving onto streets off Georgia Avenue that could help bring more to the area as a whole. A hair salon aimed at mothers and daughters, a barber and an Indian restaurant are planned for three storefronts along Wayne Avenue, he said.

‘‘There are a lot of people coming into Silver Spring with the idea: ‘We can take this old storefront and bring new life to it,’” Tull said. ‘‘They’re picking up on some of the things that are going on on that Ellsworth Drive stretch. ... And customers, they are looking for variety.”