Baltimore doesn't dicker in paying stores to move

West-side merchants get relocation deals whether due or not

March 29, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

To clear the way for a $350 million project to rebuild the west side of downtown, Baltimore has been generous in compensating evicted merchants - even when the law hasn't required it.

Take the case of businessman Meir A. "Gumbo" Duke, who received $165,744 to move his shoe store three doors down.

City taxpayers paid $134,752 last month for Duke's inventory - 6,956 pairs of women's flats, heels and boots that he did not want to move his Bare Feet Shoes from 201 N. Howard St. to the store's new home at 223 N. Howard St., outside the condemnation zone.

The city wasn't required to pay Duke a penny because he didn't own his building and was renting without a lease.

But Mayor Martin O'Malley has told development officials to go out of their way to treat displaced businesses well because moving could destroy livelihoods. The payments - which total $9.3 million so far - come as the city is looking to close fire stations and libraries because of a projected budget deficit.

Edward Wilson, a city real estate agent who handled the west side relocations, said that many merchants tried to squeeze as much money as possible out of the city.

"People end up laughing all the way to the bank," Wilson said. "I had one case where the merchant claimed 430 items, and when I checked it was really only 312 items."

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said she has asked the city auditor to review the west side deals because "it appears that the money is not being wisely spent." When told the city paid for Duke's inventory of shoes, Pratt said, "That's crazy. I don't see why we had to buy his inventory. Why didn't he just move the shoes to his new store?"

Duke, the shoe store owner, was effusive in his praise of the city. The city reimbursed him for the value of his old store's inventory after a Nov. 7 public auction of the shoes brought in $12,506, less than he said they were worth.

"We have nothing to complain about," said Duke, 40, of Owings Mills. "Everything is beautiful."

As part of his compensation package, Duke received a $20,922 check from the city to move his shelves, mirrors and equipment about 100 feet, according to city records. This was the price a professional moving company estimated it would charge, but Duke was paid to move himself.

And the city paid another $10,000 to renovate his new store.

Pratt questioned the $20,000 "self-move" payment.

"The city has contracts with moving companies that we could have paid less than that," she said.

In Duke, the city found an interesting person on whom to exercise discretionary spending.

While running a clothing store in the District of Columbia in 1990, Duke was convicted of conspiring to deal heroin as part of a drug organization with connections to Brazil, Nigeria and Baltimore's housing projects. Duke served as a heroin supplier to Linwood R. "Rudy" Williams, whom federal prosecutors described as the leader of one of the most violent heroin organizations in city history, according to court records.

Duke pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute and possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine. He spent more than four years in a federal prison.

Williams is serving a life sentence on federal drug conspiracy convictions.

In 1990, Duke was "a member of a heroin importation organization based in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and controlled by Reuven `Rubin' Tenamee, a federal fugitive wanted" by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to federal court records.

"Rudy Williams was Public Enemy No. 1, and Meir Duke was one of his sources of heroin," said Andrea L. Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute the case against Duke.

But Duke's conviction for drug dealing wasn't an issue for the city.

"We can't get into the position where we are making personal judgments about people," said Sharon Grinnell, organizer of the west side redevelopment and chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corporation. "We don't do criminal checks, we don't do background checks. ... We compensate legitimate businesses."

Duke is one of 29 merchants and 32 landowners who have been paid to move or sell their buildings as part of the first phase of the 18-block west side redevelopment project. Dozens more merchants are to follow, and the city has asked the state for $50 million to assist in the project.

O'Malley, who as a City Council member in 1999 voted against the condemnations on the west side, has asked his administration to pay merchants more than what the federal rules require.

The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Act of 1970 requires the government to compensate businesses displaced by public projects up to $20,000 for closing. An alternative is to pay up to $10,000 plus "actual reasonable moving expenses."

"We're not just kicking the merchants out with the bare-bottom minimum. It's not something that happened unconsciously or out of carelessness. We want to make sure we treat all of the merchants well," O'Malley said.

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