Korean shops give renewal needed boost More businesses moving into area near Town Center

'A small business town'

Officials, merchants see diversity as key to drawing customers

March 16, 1997|By Kristina M. Schurr | Kristina M. Schurr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At first glance, the small strip mall roughly surrounded by Crain and Ritchie highways and Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard in Glen Burnie seems no different from the other strings of stores in the area.

A hair salon. Four restaurants. A small grocery store.

No different. Except that three of the eight businesses opening onto a large gravel parking lot on Delaware Avenue have Korean characters on their awnings and windows. Except that in a few years these businesses, along with about 50 other Korean-owned businesses along a two-mile stretch of Crain Highway, could be at the center of a Korean enclave.

"Maybe they can make a Korean town, like Chinatown. People could come from [Baltimore] City on a Sunday, they get their hair cut, they eat, they watch a movie or go to a bar. In five years, this area will be busy, busy," said Myong Su "Albert" Ham.

Ham, manager of Won Ang Wedding Center in the 7400 block of Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., hopes the area nearby -- the last undeveloped parcel in Glen Burnie's urban renewal district -- can become a thriving Town Center for the estimated 2,000 Asian-Americans who live there.

The 5.6-acre lot, formerly known as Superblock, is to become a Town Center for Glen Burnie by the end of 1998. Plans for the site include an apartment complex on Crain Highway, an ice-skating rink and entertainment pavilion, and 70,000 square feet of commercial space for businesses.

The Town Center would be the bull's eye of what is now an ethnic stronghold of Korean grocery stores, video rental shops, restaurants and dry cleaners.

Glen Burnie has been home to natives of Korea since the early 1970s, when the United States relaxed immigration requirements and many immigrants settled in metropolitan areas such as Baltimore and its suburbs.

At that time, Baltimore was still experiencing much of the white flight into the suburbs, so newly arrived Koreans took over businesses that were left behind.

About 500 Korean-owned businesses operate in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, said Kye Chung, president of the Korean Businessmen's League of Maryland.

Fleeing the city

But each year, more Korean businesses in poorer sections of Baltimore flock to the county, hoping to escape crime and improve profits, which have dropped as many regular customers have lost food stamps in federal aid cutbacks, Chung said.

"The city is dangerous. The economy is bad for Korean businesses. The newspapers and the government say the economy is good, better than ever. But we cannot feel it in the city," Chung said.

"We've got 1,500 Korean businesses in city. In five years, it will drop by 50 percent and will keep dropping," Chung said.

Korean business owners see areas such as Glen Burnie -- where, according to county figures, about 2,000 Asians, or 20 percent of the county's Asian population, live -- as opportunities for economic growth, and places where owners can run their businesses without fear of being robbed, Chung said.

Anne Arundel's Asian population increased by 2,187, or 28 percent, from 1990 to 1994, according to the latest U.S. census ** and Maryland Department of Planning figures available.

During that time, Baltimore and Howard counties' Asian population grew by 26 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

In contrast, Baltimore's Asian population increased by 8 percent.

Danny Yi, manager of Oh Bok Food Market, an Asian grocery store three doors from the wedding center, said he would like to see more Korean businesses open in the area but wonders whether enough customers could support them.

"It's tough for small businesses now. More businesses opening here will mean more competition -- better for the customers but less profit for us," Yi said.

Like Ham, project planners also envision a busy area, but they think a diversity of businesses -- Korean and non-Korean -- would be the way to attract the most people.

County Councilman James DeGrange, a Glen Burnie Democrat, said he is "gratified by the interest in the Korean community to expand and have a greater presence in the area."

Diversity seen as key

But he thinks a revitalized downtown would attract many different businesses and not just those owned by Koreans.

"I don't see those existing businesses moving out, but rather improving and expanding what they have. So I think the area would be just too small to house any one ethnic group," DeGrange said.

Henry L. Hein, chairman of the Town Center committee, said he thinks Koreans, who already own many service-oriented businesses, would be well-suited to operate restaurants, coffee shops and gift stores the committee expects the developer to create in the Town Center.

"Glen Burnie grew up as a small-business town. Koreans work very hard in their small businesses, and I think that community really is geared to this kind of a neighborhood endeavor," Hein said.

Sticking together

Still, if organized development centered on Korean businesses were to occur, Koreans would need to "stick together," Yi said.

But he isn't sure that could happen because he thinks it runs contrary to the typical Korean mind-set.

"Independently, we are very strong. Little stones. That's why there are so many small businesses.

"But as a group, we are like gravel that can be pushed into any direction."

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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