Downtown activity in a deep freeze, too

Quiet: Downtown Baltimore seemed "like a ghost town" yesterday afternoon, with only a few firms open for business.

January 26, 2000|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

If the Friday after Thanksgiving has a flip side for retailers, it was yesterday.

Unlike that late November day, known as the busiest shopping day of the year, yesterday's snow kept most -- if not all -- customers away.

Early yesterday afternoon, downtown Baltimore streets were mostly empty except for an occasional snow plow or city bus. The quiet seemed broken only by the classical music blaring from speakers outside The Gallery at Harborplace. Storefront after storefront -- florists, restaurants, banks -- had their doors locked.

"It's like a ghost town," said Don Wilson, the driver of a Federal Express truck who was fighting the snow with his shorts-wearing partner Mike Murphy to deliver packages on time. "We're hungry. We need to find a restaurant that's open."

Aside from financial firms linked to the stock market, such as Legg Mason, and big law firms filled with young associates under tight deadlines, almost everything else was closed because of the heavy snow, Wilson said.

Among the shopping malls closed were The Mall in Columbia, Towson Town Center, Marley Station, Security Square, Harford Mall, Golden Ring Mall and Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis.

"We try to go at each weather event as if we are going to open," said Gary Karl, vice president of management for Westfield America Inc., which owns Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis. "We then let the issues that come forward dictate what we do. As long as it is reasonable to open our shopping centers, we will."

The decision to close Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis was made early yesterday morning, well before its scheduled 10 a.m. opening. "It was decided locally there that it was in their best interest to close," Karl said. "They didn't feel they could get adequate staff there to open the stores."

Inside The Gallery at Harborplace, which closed at 3 p.m., about half the stores had closed by 1: 30 p.m. The War of The Khakis, which rages almost all of the other 365 days, had a respite with The Gap, J. Crew and Banana Republic closed.

Godiva Chocolatier, which will be crawling with desperate husbands in just a couple of weeks as Valentine's Day approaches, had only a couple of customers.

The downtown Baltimore stores that stayed open expected a break-even day at best. Among the few, the proud, the open was Gina's Cafe. The restaurant on Calvert Street ordinarily feeds breakfast and lunch to about 700 bankers, City Hall workers and court personnel.

As snow filled the sky, Gina's neon signs promised the eclectic collection of "Breakfast Bar, Gourmet Deli, NY Salad Bar and Chinese Fastfood."

"It was OK in the morning," said Jean Ra, one of the store's co-owners. "But it slowed down. Probably, people went home."

She estimated that the restaurant served about 100 customers. Gina's had seven people working, compared with 12 on an ordinary day. She said yesterday would likely amount to a large loss.

"We would probably close if it happened like this again," she said. "We didn't expect this."

Legal Sea Foods, on Pratt Street, was about one-quarter filled, with a dozen or so tables occupied. "On an ordinary day, it would be busy," said Luis Ramos, the restaurant's manager.

Staffed by about eight employees -- half its normal complement -- Legal Sea Foods had little choice but to open because its parent company is based in Boston. "This snow is nothing for Boston," Ramos said, laughing.

With guests at nearby hotels getting stir crazy and looking for good food, he was confident that the late lunch and early dinner hour would pick up. "I think it will be a break-even day," Ramos said.

The Brooks Brothers shop in The Gallery, which might have hoped to get an edge with nearby Jos. A Bank closed, was very quiet -- except for a few guests from the adjoining Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

Jack Share, a sales associate, said the store couldn't expect to make a profit on a day like yesterday. "But you have to be open unless The Gallery closes," he said.

Across the street at the Candy Barrel in the Inner Harbor, Mike Dineen, a vice president of the Re- no, Nev.-based company who was visiting the Baltimore store, said the absence of two of the store's three scheduled employees helped the bottom line for the day.

He also said that, while the store had light traffic, those who were buying loaded up more than usual, maybe to prepare for the long, cold, snowy night.

"I don't know what it is with candy," Dineen said.

Sun staff writer Amanda J. Crawford contributed to this article.

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