While questions about the health and the future of the brick-and-mortar retail sector abound, there’s good news about a local treasure in Howard County: historic Savage Mill, the former cotton mill-turned-retail tourist attraction, is 98% leased. And has a waiting list.

The last time Savage Mill, which offers 135,000 square feet of leasable space with about 77 tenants, was so full almost to the brim was 30 years ago; more recently, the percentage of the overall building between 2015-2020 that was leased hovered around 85%.

Behind the recent success, said Director of Marketing Julie Eurice, is a rebrand that was mostly handled in-house that cost $220,000. Another has to do with the some lingering, yet positive, effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In 2020, our fortunes were boosted because people who were losing jobs sometimes opted to start their own businesses and leased space,” said Eurice. “On average, we charge our tenants about $24 per square foot, including utilities, so their costs are predictable. They don’t have to worry about the electric bill rising.”

The idea was to bring the Mill “up to an industrial/modern appearance,” she said, which included some new doors in the atrium; a paint job; new directional information that features new names for the parking lots (which are now “The Big Lot” and “The Small Lot”) and other internal signage, notably in the Carding and Spinning office buildings; plus an updated the web site.

Now, with Dive Bar and Roggenart European Bakery, Bistro & Café as food options, management is “looking for one more eatery for the lone empty space” by the atrium in the New Weave Building, said Eurice.

The uptick at the Mill was not a surprise to Mark Millman, CEO of the Owings Mills-based Millman Search Group. “Many people want to support the small businesses in the retail industry,” he said. “They often offer unique variety, as well as easy access in a totally different environment from a typical mall, big box center or a strip center.”

But that’s not all. “The environment is friendly and safe, prices are reasonable and it’s local – plus, it’s an experience. That’s crucial today,” Millman said. “In addition, you know right off the bat that the small business people are going to be more attentive to their customers. The service at large regional centers can’t compare.”

Roggenart moved its baking operation from Columbia to the former Rustiq location in Savage Mill about a year ago, when the Mill offered more available space as well as a solid location. Roggenart operates its baking center, kitchen and customer seating area there.

“Our new setup is working well since we made our investment to our commissary operation,” said Andy Budimirovich, regional manager.

As it’s turned out, the move has given Roggenart, which also operates a third store in Ellicott City, the impetus to add fourth and fifth locations in Towson and in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore City.

“Moving our main baking operation was a major transition,” said Budimirovich, “but that gave us an ample amount of space to expand. That was especially important since we cater to farmers markets and plan to continue adding brick-and-mortar locations, this time to the south of Savage Mill, during the next couple of years.”

For Eurice, serving small businesses like Roggenart is what Savage Mill is all about.

“We’re trying to enhance the effort that has always been made here,” she said, “and support the entrepreneurs and startups in Howard County.”