Downtown prepares for ballpark crowds


January 19, 1992|By Michael Dresser

It takes 970 steps for a 5-foot-6-inch woman to get from Oriole Park at Camden Yards to Harborplace.

The marketplace's managers know that because they sent Michelle Wright, a staff member, out last Monday to pace it off. It was an easy 12-minute stroll, she said, though passers-by did look at her funny as she walked along Pratt Street watching her feet and counting to herself.

At Harborplace and all around the stadium, merchants, innkeepers and restaurateurs are expecting to count a lot more than footsteps this year as some 3 million new pilgrims, with wallets bulging, pour into downtown to pay homage to the

baseball gods. As Opening Day approaches, everyone from the National Museum of Ceramic Art to Mrs. Myra the psychic reader can feel the excitement building.

Forget 1991. Forget the recession. This is going to be their year. Spring training has yet to begin, but all around the $105 million ballpark, baseball-happy capitalists are dreaming up promotions, renovating facilities, expanding floor space, extending hours and planning new hiring. On 22 percent of the dates in the year, there's going to be downtown baseball in Baltimore.

At Pickles Pub, across Washington Boulevard from the stadium, the opening will help cleanse the sullied reputations of several women who have been scurrilously libeled in the mens' room graffiti. Co-owner Vince Poist plans to paint over the scribblings as part of "a major bathroom renovation" before the Orioles return from Florida for an April 3 exhibition game.

Pickles, so close to the left field wall that Jose Canseco could probably hit the front door on one bounce if the Orioles' pitching hasn't improved, is one of the most obvious beneficiaries of the new stadium. Mr. Poist said he expects his business to triple this year as the "big risk" he and his brother took four years ago finally pays off.

"We've been struggling through waiting for the stadium," he said. Now he plans to expand and spruce up the tavern and to double his staff to about 15. He'll need every bit of new business he can get, however, because property values have soared along with his expectations. "My [tax] assessment this year is amazing," he said.

A similar scenario is being played out at bars and restaurants all around the stadium.

Up the block from Pickles, closer to center field, Michael Taylor and his partners at Sliders Bar & Grill are refinishing the 1950s-era bar, adding sports memorabilia and video screens and hoping to snag a seven-day liquor license to replace his six-day ++ permit.

They've been losing money -- especially since they closed for renovations -- but once they get a sports team to go with their sports theme, they expect to do a booming business, pumped up by frequent promotions.

Two blocks away, on Pratt Street, John and Mike Stakias have added a bright new room -- in the blue-and-white colors of the Greek flag -- to the Penn Restaurant and Carry-Out. They plan to extend their nighttime hours and open Sundays to catch hungry fans in search of an inexpensive plate of moussaka after a game. Down the street, the Campus Inn is putting in a new kitchen. Over at Harborplace, Hooters has hired about 30 more women to handle an expected 15 percent to 20 percent increase over last year's business.

For a downtown restaurant business that could charitably be described as moribund in 1991, the crack of bat on ball could be the sound of salvation.

"I think it makes all the difference in the world," said Paul Reamer, owner of P. J. Cricketts at 206 W. Pratt St. "In the past, for those of us who were not in the harbor, summer was a very, very slow time."

It's not just restaurants and bars that expect the stadium to bring new business. Saundra Mendelson, whose Maish's Auto Service lies virtually at the stadium's front doorstep, expects to extend her hours on game days and maybe hire an extra hand or two to accommodate those unlucky drivers whose cars don't start after the last out.

The 1960s-style gas station and repair shop, with its two non-digital gas pumps and 4:30 p.m. closing time, has been at its location at Pratt and Paca streets for some 20 years -- long before a new downtown stadium was even a gleam in William Donald Schaefer's eye. Now the tiny Citgo outlet, quaint but hardly scenic, is at one of the most visible corners in town, and Mrs. Mendelson isn't quite sure about the future.

"As far as I know, we'll be staying in business," she said. "It's up to the powers that be. I'm not those powers."

Even as high-brow an operation as the National Museum of Ceramic Arts, facing the front of the stadium from 250 W. Pratt St., sees opportunity in the stadium's debut. Manager Charles Pugh said the museum, now open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is thinking of extending its hours to lure in some pre-game visitors and has asked the Orioles whether the museum's gift shop could stock some items with the Orioles logo.

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