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For one Ellicott City business owner, an agonizing dilemma

Weighing the pros and cons of whether to rebuild -- again

Megan Clark, owner of Curious Minds Toys in Ellicott City. (Maximilian Franz)

Megan Clark, owner of Curious Minds Toys in Ellicott City. (Maximilian Franz)

Megan Clark wants to bring her toy store back to Ellicott City’s Main Street.

The historic business district had everything she wants — a small-town feel, a family atmosphere and a collaborative environment — that a strip mall or shopping center just cannot provide.

But at the end of the day, Clark thinks it’s probably not up to her, but up to Howard County’s government and whether it can create a Main Street that is safer for businesses and their customers.

“They have to fix this issue. Big time,” she said Thursday as a light rain fell and officials were warning more flood waters could be on the way.

“It would be stupid if we were to rebuild without the big issue being fixed,” she said. “They should’ve never allowed us to rebuild last time. They fixed a couple things and unclogged some drains, but the big issue was never solved.”

Clark represents just one of many Ellicott City business owners considering their futures after floods devastated Main Street for the second time in two years. Each of them has unique circumstances, but Clark’s story offers a glimpse at the dilemmas they all face as they make an agonizing calculation:

Should they stay, or should they go?

Building momentum

Before the waters rushed down Main Street, Clark felt like she had momentum.

Curious Minds Toys, her store, had found its niche catering to children with autism and other special needs. She had started a nonprofit to raise money allowing kids to go on shopping sprees in the store.

She gave families a chance to test toys before they bought them, something missing in today’s environment of big box stores and ecommerce.

“You could play with it,” she said. “Your child could come in and play with it and touch it and feel it and they could see if it would work for them, compared to everything in your big-box store being already wrapped up and you guessing.”

Rebuilding on Main Street, Clark put custom shelving into her new location, towards the middle of the district where the road bends.

The store was hers and things were going well.

The day of the flood

The rain was just picking up May 27 while Clark walked back from getting lunch at La Palapa. Water streamed along the curb down both sides of the street; it was just heavy rain, nothing serious yet but enough to cause concern.

The damage at Megan Clark's toy store in Ellicott City caused by the May 27 flooding.

The damage at Megan Clark’s toy store in Ellicott City caused by the May 27 flooding.

When she got back to Curious Minds, Clark asked her employee to help her start moving things away from the back wall, where water could come in during heavy rains. She also went next door to help a neighbor move some of her things.

When the water reached ankle height, Clark decided it was time to go. She grabbed her employee and headed out front to go the apartment above the store. The water quickly became waist deep.

She pulled her neighbor out of her store and they headed upstairs, where eventually they were rescued by firefighters from along Church Road, behind Main Street.

By the time Clark got to look at the store last week, everything was gone or destroyed — $80,000 to 90,000 of inventory and the custom shelving, replaced by mud and wreckage.

“It’s completely gone. Everything,” she said. “There’s not one thing I could save in the store and basically we’re on our own to raise money to try to come back.”

An uncertain future

Clark wants to rebuild, again.

She has started a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise $20,000 toward her effort.

But she estimates the costs to rebuild could be greater.

“It’ll probably be $40 to $45,000 that I would need this time to come back, to start small,” Clark said. “I don’t need as much inventory as I lost, but you have to start small again and work your way back up.”

Just getting to that point will take some work.

Howard County has paused repayments on the loans given to the Main Street businesses to help them rebuild last time around. The state has given businesses a six-month extension to pay any outstanding sales and use tax.

Clark has spoken with most of her vendors, and any with outstanding purchase orders or payments have zeroed out that debt to help her. She wants to keep the territorial rights she has developed to sell products, so no one can open a replacement store while she is trying to figure things out.

She saved some money over the past year, so she can still take care of her four children. But even that seems destined to run out over the six-month timeline she’s given herself.

“I personally feel like I might be OK, because I have a strong support system with my family,” Clark said. “If I have to go get a job, then I have to go get a job.”

At the end of the day, her future running a small toy store depends on the future of Main Street.

Engineers estimated Friday that their 18 proposals to help mitigate flooding would cost about $84 million. But no fix can guarantee flooding would never happen again.

That does not exactly soothe Clark, who worries about her safety and the safety of her customers if she returns.

“No matter how much money you make, your customers’ lives aren’t worth it,” she said. “That’s my worry. I cater to a lot of your younger children. So what if I would have had younger kids in there?”

 


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