Mahmood Anwar, owner of 9Round Fitness in Laurel, knows a good opportunity when he sees one. That’s what led him to cash in on a wave of interest in kickboxing with a franchise he started three years ago.
Anwar, among others, has a growing story to tell. While chatting with other Laurel business owners at the first-ever Discover Laurel Day, in late October, Anwar defined what draws small businesses to the small city, which is home to a mix of startups, historic sites and businesses that, as the locals like to say, “have been here forever.”
Anwar, who owned a shipping business for nine years in Laurel before purchasing 9Round, said the community has become a mixture of young people who want an attractively-priced place to live and older people who are keeping historic traditions alive.
“I just like the community,” said Anwar. “There is the historic part, yet Laurel is at a crossroads between Washington and Baltimore.”
He finds people stopping by 9Round for a workout on their way to work. “From day one, we’ve been profitable,” he said.
But Laurel’s deep roots are something to treasure and, lately, something locals are emphasizing, be it from working to preserve the historic train station to embracing Main Street’s yesteryear atmosphere; so if Laurel is about new development, startup businesses and a younger population, the city is also about ensuring its place in history, which sometimes comes to the surface in quirky anecdotes in the business world.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a notable visitor to Laurel’s Montpelier Mansion, and Anwar is quick to relay his involvement in that piece of history. “When I owned a shipping business, I actually packaged one of his wife’s dresses and sent it to get repairs,” he said. “That’s why I like Laurel: It’s a very happening place but still has things like that.”
Ride or Walk?
On historic Main Street, in May 2016 during the city’s Main Street Festival, the app LocaLynx reported 500 downloads in 24 hours. The free app offers communities coupons and deals for nearby businesses, while promoting local goods and services.
North Laurel resident Amanda Fields, LocaLynx Maryland territory manager, said Laurel is a natural fit for people who want a local shopping experience. She was on the team that started Second Saturdays on Laurel’s Main Street this past April. Held the second Saturday of each month from April through November, the event is designed to help draw people to Main Street.
Laurel’s Department of Economic and Community Development offers three local business grants for relocation, retail storefront façade improvement and street signs to encourage new businesses to move to Main Street.
At least from some perspectives, Main Street’s revitalization is working: Laurel councilwoman Valerie Nicholas reports that 70 new businesses have opened since her re-election in 2011. “We want to keep Main Street growing with a variety of businesses,” she said. “We want to keep increasing foot traffic, we want to keep bringing people together, and we want to keep that hometown feel.”
After a fight to preserve Laurel’s historic train station, for now it looks like Main Street will stay a mixture of new and old.
The city does not have any development projects at or around the MARC train station stop, said Leigha Steele, Laurel’s economic development coordinator. But developers within the Laurel Shopping Center, Towne Centre at Laurel, Laurel Lakes Centre and Centre at Laurel — all considered part of the Route 1 Corridor — have been adding businesses and are pitching lease options to even more.
Laurel Mayor Craig Moe is ready to sell Laurel as a business location. “See how easy it was to get here?” he asked visitors on Discover Laurel Day. “We’re right off of Route 95, the Parkway/295 and the Route 1 Corridor. We are close to airports and public transportation. We have parks and festivals. We have local schools and private schools.”
Meanwhile, Laurel residents and policymakers are discussing the potential of funding a circulator bus to transport residents to and from Main Street to increase pedestrian traffic, with the theory being that residents could go from work, to the gym, to the library and to Main Street without searching for parking.
Parking on Main Street is another issue at the heart of public debate, despite the opening of a 24-space parking lot on Main Street in 2016. The lot charges $1 per hour with a two-hour minimum between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, and is free on weekends and holidays.
Can Laurel be everything? Yes, to hear the mayor tell it.
“We have just about every type of housing in the city,” Moe said, “from individuals who have just graduated from college or are maybe still in college, to families who are looking for places with easy access to Baltimore and Washington.”