Downtown retailers are banking that the arrival of Morton's, a Washington-based discount clothing chain, will attract customers to the ailing Howard Street district that was once the heart of a bustling retail center in the city.
Morton's celebrated the opening this morning of its first Baltimore location, at the site of the former Hutzler's Palace store, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening sale.
"I must tell you that 60 years ago my father . . . had a store across the street," Mortimer Lebowitz, founder and president of the 56-year old chain, said to the crowd of about 200 people standing on the sidewalk.
"And today, we're opening a wonderful new store," he said.
Walter Sondheim, chairman of the board of the Center City Inner Harbor Development Corp., expressed his pleasure at the opening of Morton's, and said "being an old retailer, I can't stand to see this many people outside the store -- they should be in the store. So, I would just like to say, welcome back to Lexington Street, welcome back to Baltimore."
Morton's is leasing 19,271 square feet at One Market Center, at Howard and Lexington streets, according to Neil Tucker, a retail specialist at Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services, who helped arrange the leasing deal.
The retailer will occupy the first floor of the Palace building. The second floor has been leased to a business school, according to Tucker, who said that the building's third floor has been reserved for office space.
Hutzler's opened the new Palace in 1985 on the site of the old Hochschild Kohn store that was adjacent to the original Hutzler's. Tucker said that he has a signed letter of intent for the space on the first floor of the original Hutzler's Palace, adjacent to the new one, by a "major national retailer" that he declined to name pending a final agreement.
Tucker said that the Morton's deal acted as a "catalyst" for the leasing of the space in the building, which has over 60,000 square-feet and is owned by the California-based Murdock Development Co.
Morton's offers clothing and accessories for men, women and children, with a special emphasis on hard-to-find sizes such as slims and huskies for boys and plus-size fashions for women.
are very sensitive to fashion," said Lebowitz, whose father's store on Lexington Street was called The Mart.
The Market Center Morton's marks the opening of chain's seventh store and provides jobs for approximately 50 people. All of Morton's other stores are in or around Washington.
Despite the fact that the attempt by Hutzler's to reopen an upscale retail store downtown failed in 1989 after four years, Ted Liebowitz, Morton's general manager, thinks downtown Baltimore poses "a very good market."
"We've been serving the inner city for 56 years," he said, adding that the chain is experienced in taking over space left vacant after higher-priced retailers have failed.
"We have all of our stores in spaces that we took over from people who have been unsuccessful, mostly because the neighborhoods changed," agreed Lebowitz. He said that Morton's will serve a "lower price level than those Hutzler's served.
"The store is in a downtown area, very centrally located with excellent transportation," he said. "It's just had an economic change. Its customers are different, but there are plenty of real, live people in the area."
"We think that Morton's moving in is a very positive sign," saiLaurie Schwartz, executive director of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, an organization dedicated to maintaining the economic health of the downtown area.
"The closing of Hutzler's affected people's morale -- a lot of Baltimoreans had emotional ties to Hutzler's. But we think that Morton's is going to be a real draw for the Market Center district," she said.
"We're just excited about them opening up down here," said Bill Glazer, owner of Gage Menswear on West Baltimore Street and president of the Market Center Merchant's Association.
"We've had our share of exodus in the downtown area and it's wonderful to see a retailer move in that hopefully will attract additional customers to the area. I think they really are targeting the customers that shop in the area."