Evelyn Ngong and her family had looked forward to selling authentic African clothing, statuettes and other wares next month at the Mall in Columbia. Instead, they're learning a harsh retailing lesson.
Ngong, who opened Doors to Africa in 2001, said the mall's management notified her this month that the store's temporary lease will end Feb. 9. A permanent retailer, whom mall officials declined to identify, has leased the space.
Ngong, a native of Cameroon, said officials initially offered her another temporary space through February, Black History Month, but withdrew that offer after another permanent tenant signed up for it. "I trusted them when they said, 'I'm going to give you something else,' " she said.
Ngong's lease doesn't allow her to hold a closing sale, she said, and she has not decided what to do with the merchandise that fills the Columbia shop. Her family runs stores in Security Square Mall in Baltimore, in Towson Town Center and in Owings Mills Mall, but those locations have full inventories. She said she pays $3,100 a month in rent in Columbia and cannot afford a permanent lease there.
"The customers are not happy about [the closing] at all," she said.
Harts Brown, a Columbia resident and presiding elder of the Council of Elders of the Black Community of Howard County, said he planned to complain to mall officials. He said he has bought three African outfits for himself and gifts for his grandchildren at the Columbia store.
"Doors [to Africa] has been an outlet for us who cannot go over to Africa and get clothing and artifacts," Brown said.
Karen Geary, the mall's general manager, said the store's owners were given the option of operating a mall-owned cart but declined.
"We would love to have them stay. We requested that they stay on a cart," she said. "I can't manufacture a space I don't have."
Geary said the mall notified the store's owners this month as soon as mall representatives learned of a new tenant for the space. Doors to Africa is the only store at the mall operating under temporary lease, she added.
"They're a great retailer; they have an interesting product," Geary said. "We love unique and different retailers that bring something that's different to the mix."
Ngong's son, Roger, who helps run the family's stores, said the Columbia shop originally opened in a former men's clothing store at the mall and was later moved to a spot near Nordstrom. He said the business has averaged $250,000 a year in revenue since it opened in Columbia.
The family has not determined whether it will try to find another Columbia location, he said. "It's a very unfortunate event for Columbia," he said. "There's no store that promotes that diversity in merchandise."
Bobo's Bill Advances
Howard County Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo's bill to restrict the county Board of Education's ability to close its meetings will be heading to the General Assembly for approval.
Bobo's bill, endorsed last week by the county's legislative delegation, would bar the Howard school board from using the power of executive function to conduct closed meetings without taking minutes or giving notice.
Meanwhile, Ellicott City resident Allen Dyer said he plans to continue with his lawsuit filed in 2000 alleging that the board improperly held closed meetings. The state attorney general's office said the pending suit would not be affected if Bobo's bill wins approval. The school board voted 3 to 2 recently to oppose Bobo's bill.
The school board did back unanimously the county's efforts to get legislative approval for an increase in Howard's real estate transfer tax rate. It voted last week to support a measure requested by County Executive James N. Robey (D) to increase the transfer tax and use the extra $10 million a year in revenue for school construction.
The proposal would raise the tax, which is levied every time property is sold, from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. The additional revenue would go to the school system, which submitted an $86.3 million capital budget request for next fiscal year that includes money for three new schools and a host of renovations and additions.
Board Chairman Sandra H. French said the school system scaled back its capital request last fiscal year because of a weak economy. But schools cannot hold back any longer, she said, even if that means raising taxes.
Budget Raises Transit Roadblock
In recent years, Howard County has significantly expanded service for Howard Transit and watched ridership skyrocket from about 255,000 in fiscal 1998 to an estimated 600,000 this year.
But an increase in service is unlikely this year because the county faces one of the tightest budgets in years, says Transportation Planning Director Carl Balser.
"We'd be foolish to think we could increase it when everyone is having such budget trouble," he said. "For this coming year, we're trying very hard just to continue what we've got."
Howard's transit system may have a problem with state funding as well. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has said he wants to use $300 million from the state transportation fund to help offset the state's $1.2 billion budget deficit. He also wants to keep $100 million that is usually given to the counties for transportation projects.
"Clearly it's not desirable to take money from the trust fund when it's already been acknowledged for years that the overall funding for transportation is inadequate," Balser said.
The county hadn't been planning to build any new road projects with state money, he said. But the county transit system has received state funding.
"We're experiencing tremendous ridership growth, and it would be a real shame to cut service if we don't continue to get help from the state," he said.
Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.