Revitalizing dose Opening: Rite Aid Corp. is opening a 15,000-square-foot outlet in Hecht's former downtown store, giving a sense of renewal to Howard Street, where big retailers left long ago.

July 09, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

The intersection of Howard and Lexington pulsates like a street bazaar: music blaring, sirens wailing, vendors hawking T-shirts, fake flowers and religion.

Here, in a pedestrian mall thick with security, patrolled by police and video, once-indelible department stores of an elegant downtown Baltimore sit unattended. The ornate Hutzler's building hovers "FOR LEASE." And the grand Stewart & Co. facade, etched with felines dangling wreathes from their gaping maws, lays in waste, scarred with graffiti and chipped paint.

But the old Hecht's, one of the last great downtown department stores to leave these four corners more than seven years ago, is undergoing an urban-shopping face-lift: Today, Rite Aid Corp., the nation's largest discount drugstore chain, will officially open one of its largest stores on the first floor of the former department store, a landmark erected 71 years ago.

With its arrival comes hope of a renewal of Baltimore's once thriving retail core, long since shifted to the city's waterfront.

"The Inner Harbor has just taken over this area, but there is enough traffic through here," said Lawrence Franklin, a 25-year-old neighborhood sketch artist leaning over a stool on the corner, watching the crowd coursing through Lexington on a recent afternoon. "But then again, people just got their government checks."

The new 15,000-square-foot Rite Aid store is not expected to replace the grandeur of the department stores. It is, however, replacing an older 4,000-square-foot Rite Aid store across the street, creating 25 jobs on an investment of more than $4 million in an economically depressed community in need of a resurrection.

"It's making a slow come back," said Rite Aid store manager Joe Gillespie. "It kind of had to hit bottom and work its way up. This is a major step already. By putting [Rite Aid] here, they're showing a retailer can operate down here and make a go at it."

The store, operating on a trial basis since June 17, represents more than the future of this neighborhood. It is the next generation of Rite Aid stores -- bigger and broader in selection, selling everything from Gund teddy bears to Cross pens, liquor to potpourri, small appliances to fine fragrances.

But more than its merchandise, the city hopes Rite Aid will offer the area a boost for growth, filling a gap left by suburban-bound department stores and other retailers that have abandoned urban neighborhoods in Baltimore and other old metropolitan cities across the country.

"The mayor views this as a major break and a meaningful step in the effort to revitalize that area, to increase the flow of traffic there, to bring people back to the area, back to the glory days where it was in the 1950s, 1960s and I guess early 1970s," said Clinton R. Coleman, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's spokesman.

"That's been a particularly difficult redevelopment project for the city, and it's been difficult to find the right mix. But we think that now with the Rite Aid there as an anchor and offices there it's going to bring the people back, so hopefully that'll be a spark that we need to really realize the development dreams there."

Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid could be a spark for the broader region: The 2,771-store chain, which has already expanded or built about 20 stores here this year, plans to create over the next 18 months some 200 jobs and invest more than $20 million to open, expand and relocate another 25 to 30 stores in the Baltimore area, including new stores in Owings Mills, Bel Air, Timonium, Fallston and two in the city.

The price tag: In 1996 and 1997, Rite Aid's investment will amount to about $33 million in the area -- not including land acquisitions -- for a chain that already runs about 150 stores in the Baltimore region, its second largest market behind Philadelphia.

There is, the company says, a need here.

"We want to be a neighborhood drugstore chain, and we understand people don't like to travel great distances for their pharmacies," Rite Aid spokesman Craig Muckle said. "And secondly, there's not a lot of pharmacy chains that do business typically in the downtown or urban areas. This is a void we like to fill."

At the intersection of Lexington and Howard streets, the void remains. Hochschild Kohn & Co. vanished in 1977. Stewart's in 1979. Hecht's in 1989. Hutzler's that same year.

In their place, a jumble of small retailers has cropped up: Inner City Records. Morton's clothing shop. The King of Lexington Jewelry. Shoppers still come. And merchants still hope.

"It's changing [for] the better," 40-year-old Jack Gelman, the jeweler's majority owner, said while attending customers and phone calls. "It still has some problems -- robberies -- but it's getting better, getting much better."

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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