Future hangs by shoestring Businessman: A former drug dealer hopes to make his clothing and shoe store part of the revitalization of Cherry Hill.

August 11, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun misstated the background of Dave Johnson, an IBM field engineer. Johnson said that, as a teen-ager in the South Bronx, he was a runner for criminal organization, but he said he never sold drugs.

The Sun regrets the error.

Growing up, finding trouble, going to jail, Alonzo Brown always knew he was a businessman. He had a paper route, owned a candy cart, and made a living selling drugs for a few years -- all in his "hometown," the South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill.

"Even when I made mistakes in my life, I was always thinking about business," he says. "Business was always something good about me. To get a chance to be an entrepreneur again, that's the chance I've been waiting for."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

This fall, Brown, 33, will open a new business in Cherry Hill and, perhaps, a new chapter in his life there. "Bird-33," as Brown has named his athletic shoe and apparel franchise, is being billed as a prime attraction of the neighborhood's refurbished shopping center.

Brown's new business also represents a triumph against long odds -- not only for the store's proprietor but also for Catholic Charities, which bought the failing shopping center for $1.1 million in January 1997.

That purchase, a bold move by a nonprofit charity into the for-profit world of commercial development, has been followed by $5.5 million in reconstruction.

The lofty goals established by Catholic Charities, and the nonprofit community group it created to manage the shopping center, make this one of the most ambitious projects attempted in a residential Baltimore neighborhood.

The aim is to transform an isolated south city area of 12,000 residents, long dominated by a public housing project, into a mecca for working-class blacks.

The shopping center to be run by the Cherry Hill Town Center Inc., backers believe, will bring new visitors and potential homeowners into a neighborhood with a tough reputation.

It will keep residents' shopping dollars -- often spent in West Baltimore or the suburbs -- in Cherry Hill. And it will provide retail space for a new generation of home-grown entrepreneurs.

But local politicians and businessmen here and in Newark, N.J. -- site of a successful inner-city shopping center on which the Cherry Hill project is based -- have expressed doubts, particularly about finding local residents who can build small businesses.

"I really hope people like Mr. Brown will succeed," said Sixth District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a Cherry Hill resident. "But I don't know if a shoe store can be supported in the long term by a community of fewer than 15,000 people. I want it to work. I don't know that it can."

Early occupancy figures for the shopping center have been encouraging. Ninety-five percent of the space in the 50,000-square-foot complex is leased. Of the 14 retailers, 12 are owned or operated by African-Americans.

And nine will be run by current or former Cherry Hill residents. Among these entrepreneurs are Brown; Melvin C. Davis III, owner of the new laundromat; and Wendell S. Jones, 34, a Cherry Hill native who will operate the Subway and Mama Ilardo's franchises in the new food court.

"The commitment of money to this shopping center is amazing," says Jones. "And I think a lot of us feel a heavy responsibility to ourselves and to our friends and family to succeed. We want this to be a success story."

Overcoming bad choices

Thus far, there is no greater success story than Alonzo Brown's tale of bad choices, perseverance and an obsession with a Boston basketball star.

Born in New Jersey, the fifth of six children, Brown was 13 when his mother moved the family to public housing in the 3400 block of Spelman Road. Often a cut-up in school, Brown was a smart, articulate teen-ager at home who was serious about saving and making money, his family says.

After graduating from Southern High School, he bought a bus and sold candy out of it in Cherry Hill. The venture added to his renown in the neighborhood.

Folks called him Lonnie or "Bird," testimony to his devotion to Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, a life-size picture of whom Brown kept on his bedroom door.

"Oh, my goodness. He just loved to watch that man play basketball, when everyone else preferred Michael Jordan," recalls his mother, Julia Cheeks, now 58 and a cashier.

"Alonzo had such an independent spirit about him, I figured if he made it out of Cherry Hill alive, sooner or later he would succeed."

Brown left Cherry Hill, but not in the way his mother had hoped.

Lured by friends from the streets, and frustrated that his business instincts weren't carrying him further, Brown began selling drugs in the mid-1980s "and making a nice profit," he says.

He was arrested on drug manufacturing and distribution charges in 1989 and received a four-year prison sentence, records show.

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