Selling merchants on relocation

Poppleton revival linked to luring west-side businesses


Most Poppleton merchants have vacated West Baltimore Street in recent years, leaving blocks with iron security gates that never open and "for rent" signs that compete with dust to be seen in storefront windows.

But an effort is afoot to revive the historic retail strip by using a federal tax-break and grant program to lure dozens of merchants who might be displaced by the $350 million West Side Urban Renewal Project, which would rebuild 18 square blocks of the struggling Howard Street corridor.

"Some merchants might be very comfortable [on West Baltimore Street], and if it is congenial for them, we will do everything from our side to make it happen," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp.

The West Side Urban Renewal Project would add hundreds of apartments and coffee shops, restaurants and student-oriented stores to the few such retailers there now. Shops that would not fit with the new themed district would probably be displaced.

Many of those merchants said last week that they would consider moving to West Baltimore Street, but some have qualms about moving to an area where bulletproof glass often separates customers from clerks.

West Baltimore Street -- once a vibrant shopping district that served for decades as an unofficial boundary between blacks in Northwest Baltimore and whites to the south -- has been losing business since the riots that followed the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, merchants said.

Restaurants, hardware and variety stores and banks remained until the closing of the Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes public housing complexes in recent years, which caused thousands of customers to move.

"The street is practically gone except for the drugs, alcohol and sex that has overtaken the place," said J. A. Karim, owner of Karim's Real Deal, a variety store in the 1200 block of W. Baltimore St.

Consultants for PlanBaltimore, the city's 20-year plan for urban development, agree.

City planning officials have notified merchants along the street that the economic and development consulting firm Hammer, Siler, George Associates recommended that the city phase out the street's retail strip.

"The consultant recommends across the city [that] we may have to eliminate 20 percent of the retail area because right now we don't have the market to support" it, said Thomas J. Stosur, a project manager at PlanBaltimore.

Merchants were angered by the recommendation and met with an official from Empower Baltimore Management Corp. to begin developing a relocation package for downtown merchants.

Empower Baltimore was created to earmark money and resources for community development, job training, housing and health in several areas of the city.

"I think that it is terrible to write off a part of the city that has a history of being a vibrant retail center," said J. Carol Osgood, acting director of the Learning Bank, a nonprofit literacy center in the 1200 block of W. Baltimore St.

`Perfect location'

"We are in a perfect location for expanding the city in this direction."

In December 1994, Baltimore was one of six cities to receive $100 million federal empowerment zone grants. West Baltimore Street from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Carey Street is covered by the west side's empowerment zone, which stretches from Coppin State College to Pennsylvania and North avenues and south through the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park and Washington Village neighborhoods. Jonestown, Little Italy, Fells Point and Wagner's Point are in the two other zones.

"We have a mechanism to stimulate business development and jobs so we can get those initiatives done," said Michael Preston, chief public information officer for Empower Baltimore.

Some West Baltimore Street merchants said empowerment zone funds have not trickled down.

"Empowerment what?" was a common response to questions about it.

"It's just been a joke," said David Gathers of Solo Variety Store in the 1100 block of W. Baltimore St.

Preston said Empower Baltimore has created 2,893 jobs in the zone areas. Among the businesses benefiting is ASI Sign Systems in the 1000 block of W. Baltimore St., which has hired four people since it opened in 1996.

Because the strip along West Baltimore Street is in the empowerment zone, a merchant who moved there could be eligible for as much as $3,000 in tax credits, tax assessment discounts, gas and electric bill discounts and free employee job training.

The incentives would complement any relocation package offered by Baltimore Development Corp., which is overseeing the project.

"If the merchants on North Eutaw Street are drawing their customers from the west side, it would make sense for them to look for a west-side location, and we must help this business strip market itself," said William Merrit, an Empower Baltimore business consultant.

Last week, some Eutaw Street merchants expressed concerns about having to move but acknowledged that they have few options.

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