EDGEWATER — Walking around the Main Street at South River Colony complex, it’s hard not to notice the vacant storefronts and signs advertising space to lease.
The Edgewater shopping center is a little more than half full, the victim of a stagnant economy, business owners say.
But a flurry of new shops and restaurants moving into the outdoor complex, which opened in 2003 off Routes 2 and 214, has them hopeful that things might be on the upswing.
New merchants say they’ve been attracted to the plaza’s central location and the ability to serve an area of the county that’s long been neglected. But they admit they’ll have to work to bring more business into the center, which is tucked away behind the Kmart and not easily visible from Route 2.
“The recession took a toll here,” said Stan Fletcher, co-owner of Stan and Joe’s Saloon. “Three years ago, when it hit, this place just got clobbered.”
Stan and Joe’s is the latest business to open in the complex, which was modeled after downtown Annapolis. The development is one of three commercial areas surrounding South River Colony, a 1,400-acre, mixed-use development of townhouses, restaurants, retailers and offices.
Bill Bateman’s Bistro is expected to open there by summer. Michele Tango of Deale opened bead store The Twisted Bead about six months ago, and East Coast Martial Arts opened a studio a few doors down from Stan and Joe’s earlier this year.
“Sometimes if you want to go to a store, you have to go to Annapolis, or you have to go Baltimore or to D.C.,” said Tango, who teaches bead-making classes at her shop. “I wanted to be in an area that would serve south county. This is a good strong residential area. Even in the past 10 years, the Edgewater area has grown so much.”
The new businesses at South River Colony join several others popping up along the bustling Route 2 corridor in Edgewater.
Giant Food opened a store last November in the Village at Lee Airpark Shopping Center. The county’s first Sonic is set to open by summer next to the Walgreens, and Plazuelas Mexican Restaurant — a Howard County-based business — is opening a restaurant on Route 2 across from Lee Airpark.
Chipotle opened its fourth county franchise late last month, next to Giant.
“It’s the gateway to south county,” said Mike Lohsl, the owner of Chesapeake Cigar and Tobacco Co. across from Stan and Joe’s. “You’ve got a lot of people who want to be south of here … and it’s a pocket of the community that hasn’t really been served by retail.”
But you have to have a gimmick to be successful in Main Street at South River Colony, Lohsl said.
He said he’s seen his sales increase by about 25 percent in the last year and suggested it’s the uniqueness of his store – where customers can buy cigars and smoke them in a cafe area – that attracts people.
“You have to have a hook,” Lohsl said. “That’s the key to success back here. You can’t just depend on foot traffic.”
Fletcher and his business partner, Joe McGovern, opened their bar on West Street four years ago. Ever since then, they’ve been looking to expand – and they had a number of regulars at their Annapolis location making the six-mile drive from Edgewater for live music, conversation and drinks.
Then Shocker’s bar closed in the development, and suddenly there was available space, they said.
“We have a great website, tremendous presence on Facebook … we keep it very personal,” McGovern said. “That’s the secret to our success.”
Fletcher and McGovern have banded together with other new merchants to organize First Fridays, which will feature children’s activities, themed events and possibly a flea market. Held the first weekend of every month, it’s meant to draw more families into the shopping center, they said.
“You have room to build down here,” Fletcher said. “It’s not rapid growth, but it’s steady growth. There’s such an influx of people into south county — it’s so convenient to Annapolis, Baltimore, D.C.”
Tommy Lee, owner of East Coast Martial Arts, said he already has 120 members at his Edgewater location. He also has studios in Annapolis and Davidsonville.
“It’s a good central location,” Lee said. “But I don’t think a lot of people know what’s behind there.”
Fletcher and McGovern said the new businesses are committed to working together to change that.
“The whole premise of a mall is that if you provide lots of traffic, that’s good for everyone,” Fletcher said.