Ellicott City businesses debate rebuilding

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — As Ellicott City business owners comb through the muck and take stock of what’s salvageable and what may have to be tossed, the questions they have to answer about whether reopening is in their future will vary from door-to-door and block-to-block.

While initial reports seem to suggest the 2018 flood was worse than the 2016 flood, a lot depends on where you live or where you set up your business.

“In some places it’s not as bad, in some places it’s worse, and in some places it’s about the same,” said Rick Winter, the owner of the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.

Winter had a special machine sucking out moist air and pumping back dry air back into the brewpub on Thursday afternoon.

His restaurant sits prominently on Main Street and is right on top of the Tiber Branch, which was one of the main sources of flooding.

“We’re coming back 100 percent,” he said without any hesitation.

His timeline to reopen is both ambitious and defiant.

“If all goes according to our plan we’ll be open within four weeks or five weeks,” Winter said. “It’s just a question of, is everything else ready for us to be ready?”

He has batches of beer ready to go that he said would stay good if the electricity gets back up and running soon.

Winter said last Sunday’s flood put about an inch of water on the first floor of his business, meaning the basement was totally inundated. But he also had the water pumped out within 36 hours, whereas in 2016 it took a week to do that.

Winter plans on replacing everything he is lost but pointed out he lost a lot less this time than in 2016.

“We had to replace all the gas pipes in the building because it didn’t pass the pressure test,” Winter said. “Those are all new now, relatively, and the water didn’t touch them. So those pipes should be fine, we shouldn’t have to replace those. That took time [in 2016], time and money.”

Since none of the buildings is in imminent danger of collapse, money could end up being the ultimate factor in deciding who reopens and who moves on.

It’s a decision that will lead to some difficult and uncomfortable conversations among those who made their living on Main Street.

“I don’t think there’s any building that’s falling down today, but there might be some that somebody might look at and say, ‘You know, I’m not willing to put the money into that,’” said Howard County Executive Alan Kittleman. “I want to tell them that it’ll always be OK.”

But he acknowledged the threat of dangerous and decimating flooding will never completely go away as long as Main Street exists in its current location, a fact that is starting to sink in now.

“I think we owe it to them to say we’re working the best we can to mitigate, and mitigate doesn’t mean eliminate, it means mitigate, try to make it less, and we’re trying to do that. The discussions we had after 2016 will be different now in 2018,” Kittleman said.

“We’re going to have some different options we’ll be looking at, some different ideas, because this is a game changer in many ways, 2016 was too. But to have two of these in two years is a real game changer.”

Kittleman and other Howard County leaders stress that they will do everything they can within reason to help support the choices people ultimately wind up making about living and working on Main Street. They know some businesses will stay and some will not.

History could be a factor. The binds of decades, or even centuries, of existence will make it difficult, if not impossible, for some people to give up on their homes or businesses. The county isn’t ready to push anyone to do that.

“If someone came to us now and said ‘I want to build a house on a stream’ we’d say, ‘No, you can’t,’” Kittleman said. “But they’ve had these buildings there for 100 years, 200 years, and so we’re not going to tell them if they want to rebuild that we’re not even going to consider letting them do that.”

People who decided leave now could wind up changing their mind in the future once the shock of the loss from the latest flood wears off County Councilman Jon Weinstein conceded.

“This is no fault of anybody’s,” Winter said. “This is Act of God stuff.”

But not everyone appears to be ready to take another leap of faith.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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