Hispanic businesses racked by differences Group's rift threatens plan for Spanish Town in East Baltimore

March 31, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

An association of the city's Hispanic entrepreneurs -- formed last year to create the kind of network that helped earlier waves of immigrant-owned businesses -- is ineffective and increasingly divided over how to help struggling merchants, members say.

The rift in the Hispanic Business Association stems from deep differences in the city's growing Hispanic population -- estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 -- over how to win government help in the upper Fells Point business district for a variety of needs, from trash cleanup to loan assistance.

Last year's mayoral race between Kurt L. Schmoke and Mary Pat Clarke brought many of these differences to the surface.

Five business owners, including the association's former vice president and treasurer, resigned from the group this month. The divisions are so great that a popular proposal to create an official Spanish Town district -- envisioned as a boost to economically troubled Hispanic-owned restaurants and stores in East Baltimore -- is stalled.

The association has scheduled a meeting Tuesday morn- ing at an Eastern Avenue restaurant in an effort to iron out differences, but those who have resigned say they will not attend.

"We hope we could get everyone back together," says Jose Luaces, the association's president and owner of the Fishery seafood restaurant. "But instead of being together, it's like the whole community is dividing. We can only make progress together."

At the same time, community members say Mr. Luaces and his confrontational tactics with the city government have prompted the dispute. Mr. Luaces has complained bitterly to officials about traffic and parking, and he has publicly criticized Mr. Schmoke's liaison to the Hispanic community, Haydee Rodriguez, as being unresponsive to businesses' needs.

Some business owners, including the five who have resigned, believe it is Mr. Luaces who is hurting their cause. For all his sniping, the only positive result they point to is the printing of the mayor's newsletter in Spanish. These entrepreneurs say a more conciliatory approach is needed.

"If we're going to grow up as a community, we need power," says Heber Portillo, the 24-year-old owner of Restaurant El Salvador on Broadway and one of those who resigned. "And to have power, we need to have friends in the city."

Tensions inside the association date to last year's Democratic mayoral primary, which was closely followed by the city's Hispanic community.

Most Hispanics supported Mr. Schmoke. And prodded by Ms. Rodriguez, the business association organized a summer fund-raiser for the mayor at Lista's restaurant on the waterfront. About 100 people attended, paying $25 per ticket.

Mr. Luaces attended the fund-raiser. But the 58-year-old, who came to Baltimore from Spain 33 years ago, had become frustrated with the Schmoke administration. He got no response when he complained that truck traffic in the alley next to his restaurant was causing cracks in the walls.

So he and Jose Ruiz, then-executive director of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's commission on Hispanic affairs, organized a fund-raiser for Mary Pat Clarke at Jose Flores' Caribbean Lounge in Highlandtown. Only 40 people bought the $10 tickets, but a point had been made. Ms. Rodriguez, saying she no longer felt welcome at the association, has stopped coming to meetings.

Many association members saw Mr. Luaces' actions as unnecessarily confrontational. The disagreement came to a head March 5 when the business association held elections for new officers. Mr. Luaces won re-election with a new board of officers who had supported Mrs. Clarke.

Mr. Luaces and his opponents acknowledge that their politicking has damaged chances for their proposal -- the designation of the neighborhood around Broadway and Eastern Avenue as Spanish Town -- to become reality.

The idea's backers say the Schmoke administration has indicated that the business community needs to be united before the mayor will support the Spanish Town designation.

In the meantime, businesses are hurting. Caribbean Sazon on Eastern Avenue closed last year. Miguel A. Rivera, owner of the Chinese and Salvadoran restaurant San Luis, says he is making just enough money "to pay the bills, but not always on time."

And Juan Ramos, who has run a small store on Eastern Avenue for four years, is moving his business Friday. Five months behind on the rent, he is gambling that he can make up his debt by opening a larger market on property he purchased a few blocks away.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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