Mayor eyeing help for stores

Plan offers $5 million for merchants ousted by west-side project

March 02, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration may help merchants displaced by the rebuilding of downtown's west side by finding new stores for them in the same neighborhood and offering them $5 million in low-interest loans.

The city is studying the 300 block of N. Howard St., the 200 block of N. Eutaw St. and the 700 and 800 blocks of Washington Blvd. as places where merchants could move as a group after the city condemns their properties, according to an internal report given to the mayor last week.

The plan to provide additional help to shopkeepers displaced by the city's largest urban renewal project since the Inner Harbor comes when state lawmakers are turning up the heat on the city to treat merchants fairly.

Although Gov. Parris N. Glendening included $21 million in his proposed 2001 budget for the renovation of the Hippodrome theater -- a key to the effort to redevelop the neighborhood -- Sen. Thomas M. Middleton and others are considering adding stipulations to the appropriations bill.

"We may put some requirements in there that the city provide for these merchants and make sure they are compensated for their relocation," said Middleton, chairman of the Senate Capital Budget Subcommittee and a Charles County Democrat.

The attempt to intervene in the state's funding of the all-important Hippodrome project frightens some developers, who are investing tens of millions of dollars to help revive the economically depressed area.

"It would be a shame to see the Hippodrome project slowed down or our own project slowed down," said Maria E. Johnson, vice president of Banc of America Community Development Corp., which is planning a $54 million project including 334 apartment units and retail businesses on Eutaw Street.

Reactions vary

Merchants whose businesses will be condemned had mixed reactions to the mayor's proposal.

Although the merchants said they'd prefer to remain where they are, many praised the suggestion that the city move them as a group to another home on the west side of downtown so their customers could find them.

"This looks very good," said Lou Boulmetis, owner of the 70-year-old Hippodrome Hatters on North Eutaw Street. "It seems that the mayor has a firm grasp on the problems faced by the merchants."

Some shopkeepers criticized the suggestion that they move to Washington Boulevard west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, saying it's so far away that they'd lose customers.

Others said the city should compensate them for their financial losses, not lend them money.

Some merchants said they were offended by the city's suggestion that they rent stores in a complex planned in the 200 block of N, Eutaw St. by Milt Rosenbaum, the head of the west side merchants association.

Rosenbaum criticized

The Sun revealed last month that Rosenbaum, who testified in favor of the condemnation of dozens of businesses owned by members of his own association, had been quietly trying to win approval from the city's development officials to build a 10,000-square-foot shopping complex on Eutaw Street.

Scott Mun, co-owner of the Wig House at 114 W. Lexington St., said he is angry to think that Rosenbaum wanted to shepherd association members into his own building so he could rent spaces to them.

"I'd die before renting from him," said Mun. "I don't scratch someone's back after they stab me in the back."

Rosenbaum did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The mayor's proposed plan was created by an advisory group made up of Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for economic development; Walter Sondheim, a leader in downtown redevelopment; and former city solicitor Benjamin L. Brown.

Recommendations

Proposals include:

The city should hire two or three more employees, at least one of whom speaks Korean, to help the city's development agency communicate more effectively with merchants and assist them in finding new locations.

The city should encourage developers to include as many existing merchants as possible in their projects and find a cluster of open buildings in the same neighborhood to relocate the displaced.

The city should create a $3 million to $5 million "tenant support fund" that would provide low-interest loans to help merchants pay for renovations to their new stores, cover any increase in rent after relocation and perhaps fund second moves if the merchants want to return in two years after developers have built their retail complexes.

This money would be in addition to the $20 million that the city expects to pay to buy the buildings and relocate the merchants under eminent domain condemnation proceedings.

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