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Q&A With Ellicott City Partnership Board President Karen Besson

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Karen Besson had served as an Ellicott City Partnership (ECP) board member since its founding in 2013, and also as chair of its Economic Vitality Committee since 2015, prior to her being named board president on July 1, 2016.

On that note, you already know what the past four months have been like: A few weeks after she took office, a flash flood rushed through Historic Ellicott City on July 30, which caused the following financial results: a reduction in economic activity of $67.2 million, reduced labor income of $27.2 million, a loss of 151 jobs and a decrease in county government revenue of as much as $1.3 million, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA). Welcome, indeed.

Previously, she served on the work group charged with forming the ECP by combining the former Ellicott City Restoration Foundation (ECRF) and the former Ellicott City Business Association (ECBA), where she served as an officer since 2006. The purpose of the ECP is to administer Ellicott City’s program as a designated Maryland Main Street.

From 2005–14, she was a small business owner on Ellicott City’s Main Street. Her retail business, Art & Artisan, carried art and fine crafts created primarily by regional artists. Earlier, she administered the membership programs for The Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Museum and Evergreen Museum & Library, and also volunteered at School 33 Art Center, in Baltimore.

The daughter of two Department of Defense employees, Besson grew up in Anne Arundel County and in the former West Berlin, Germany. She attended The John F. Kennedy International School, Notre Dame of Maryland University for undergraduate museum studies, New York University for arts administration, and The Johns Hopkins University for postgraduate business studies. She has lived in (the Baltimore County part of) Ellicott City for 12 years.

How much money did the ECP receive to help mitigate results of the Ellicott City flood?

At the time we disbursed our last round of grants in early November, the amount stood at a little more than $1.5 million; since, we’ve raised nearly another $100,000. The total was generated from private donors and organizations, such as the United Way of Central Maryland, as well as from local businesses (that was about 70% of the money) and contributors who visited our HelpEllicottCity.com website.

In addition, more than 20 concerns printed T-shirts and other commemorative items, such as car magnets and jewelry that they sold so they could donate the proceeds to us. A wonderful Cub Scout troop in Columbia held a 5K; one of most heartwarming things I saw, though, was receiving the donation money area children collected from their lemonade stands, bake sales and by selling handmade friendship bracelets to raise money for the effort.

Did the ECP get more money than you (and others) thought it would?

So far, we received less than the $2 million we projected that we would receive, which was based on how quickly donations were coming in the early days after the flood. We were involved in a couple of fundraisers that did very well, but didn’t generate quite as much as we projected. Still, the numbers have been pretty astonishing for a relatively small organization like ours. We only have three employees and the rest are volunteers.

How was the money disbursed?

It was disbursed by grants from the ECP. Our effort began with $500 Emergency Mini-Grants. Next, we contributed about $80,000 to help businesses bring in professionals to conduct clean-up and remediation of their businesses; we paid up to half of their costs or their flood insurance deductible. Then we processed 299 Humanitarian Relief and Rebuilding grants to residents, business owners and property owners that ranged from $1,500 to $10,000. Those grant applications were created by the EC Strong committee, which consisted of representatives from the ECP, Howard County government, the United Way of Central Maryland and the Red Cross. The Community Foundation of Howard County guided us with the administrative portion.

Lastly, we teamed up with Heritage Automotive Catonsville Toyota to disburse $50,000 in grants to people who had lost their cars during the flood.

Is all of the money disbursed?

No. We will continue to collect donations through Dec. 31, 2016, and we are leaving applications open until that date so we can continue to fund those in need. While we’re still accepting flood donations, we are absorbing the administrative costs in our operating budget and are placing all of the flood relief monies that we collect back into the community.

What’s the general vibe from the merchants on Main Street about where they stand today?

I would say the vibe is hopeful and enthusiastic, especially with the holidays approaching. The tenaciousness of this community is really something to admire. It’s very resilient.

How important are December revenues to the local merchant’s annual prospects?

They’re critical. For some of our merchants, December revenues mean 50% of their annual gross. And let me tell you that some people were really scrambling to reopen before Small Business Saturday (which was on Nov. 26), for just that reason. That day was also Main Street’s Grand Reopening, so we tried to direct all of the attention to that event that we could for that reason. That was a great lead-in to our annual Midnight Madness event, on Friday, Dec. 2.

Do you think the constant — even national — publicity that Downtown Ellicott City has received since the flood will also lead to a rebound during the next several months?

It is my hope that that’s the case. In the short-term, I’d say definitely yes, but I think we will have challenges after the holiday season, and we’re working on ways to keep the momentum going.

What ended up getting updated on Main Street a few years sooner than originally planned due to the storm?

Some sewer lines, for one; some of them were quite outdated. We also got some new gas lines. Some of the property owners took the opportunity to renovate their buildings with flood-resilient construction materials.

What’s the historic perspective on the storm?

Many of the people who were here in 1972 for Hurricane Agnes say that the recent storm was much worse. While Agnes was a flood of rising water, this was a flash flood of rushing water, and it caused much more destruction.

When is the next significant construction project planned?

It is my understanding the county is now taking a look at the entire watershed, in hopes of preventing that kind of a rush of water in the future. That will probably be the big mitigation project and will take some time.  We don’t expect anything major to happen for at least the next year. The county is in the middle of hydraulics and hydrology studies that it needs to conduct before it takes the next step.

What remains to be done to get Downtown Ellicott City to where you want it?

We need to replace the business structure that we lost due to the flood, as we lost about 35% of the businesses that populated Main Street. Along with working to retain existing businesses, we are working with the HCEDA and Howard County Tourism to recruit new businesses to fill in those spaces.

We’re hoping that the storm actually provided some people with the opportunity to open new businesses downtown. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have all of our vacancies filled within the next six months. Despite the flood, people still want to do business here.

What point do you want to underscore that you think the public may not fully understand?

First of all, regarding our organization, we did not come to be due to the flood; we’ve been here for three years. And that our Main Street is a Designated Maryland Main Street, and we officially administer the program. We’re primarily an economic development organization, and that will remain our long-term mission.

What’s your take on the infrastructure after the rebuild?

Dealing with it was horrible in the short term, but we’re hoping that we’re coming back stronger and better than ever in the long term, with a resilient rebuild with better construction materials to go along with the great community spirit. We have a big picture view and are exploring plans regarding the retail-restaurant-service business mix to encourage Ellicott City to become the economic engine it should be. And know that the Howard County government has just been stellar during the aftermath of the flood. We’re lucky to have their support.