On west side, plenty of customers but not enough stores

City Diary

November 14, 2001|By MILT ROSENBAUM

HERE'S A prediction: The 27 square blocks of Baltimore's west side that encompass the University of Maryland Medical System, Lexington Market and about 400 merchants will be redeveloped.

The once-teeming retail district, where my wife and I owned a shop for more than 30 years, has the best infrastructure of any business site in Maryland. The reasons for that are the light rail on Howard Street, the subway on Eutaw Street and the intersection of virtually every major bus line that together provide inexpensive public access to well over a million residents of Baltimore City and the nearby counties.

Fully 70 percent of this populace is African-American and, for the most part, they do not have the means or desire to shop in Towson Town Center or Marley Station.

This viable, important part of our population desperately needs affordable, accessible shopping.

Stores such as Staples, Old Navy, Toys `R' Us, Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory would be prime candidates for this area.

More than 100,000 people come into downtown Baltimore every day to work, yet they have nowhere to shop. Further, more than 20,000 people now call downtown home, and more new apartments are opening because of such innovative developers as David Hillman and Theo Rodgers.

But there's not one supermarket in the area, which is ripe for the plucking by stores such as Giant, Safeway or Super Fresh.

There was an exodus of major retailers from the west side about 25 years ago. Five major department stores closed or moved. They couldn't wait to get to the malls surrounding the Beltway, abandoning the inner city. Many small and medium-sized merchants, both local and national, followed the big boys.

But suburbia did not prove to be the panacea for which most merchants were searching. The malls meant higher rents, common-area charges, longer hours, Sunday and holiday openings and larger sales forces. It all meant that a retailer in many cases had to double sales volume in order to rake in the same earnings, an unrealistic goal.

The construction of a new mall around the Beltway does not automatically create $500 million in new sales; it merely splits or dilutes the available dollars.

Major retailers across the country are finding that urban locales such as Baltimore's west side could be fertile markets for new outlets. For example, Kmart, Barnes & Noble and Staples are a few of the many national chains that in the past few years have opened stores in the center of Philadelphia.

Major retailers have ignored the cities for nearly 30 years. Now that the suburbs are saturated, many of these same retailers are returning to the inner city. The rise of retail has far-reaching ramifications for a city trying to jump-start its economy.

More retail translates into increased tax revenue and more jobs. Kmart brought in 400 jobs when it opened at the Gallery in Philadelphia. Lively shopping districts draw more visitors and keep workers downtown after offices close at 5 p.m.

The Baltimore area has the consumer base to support accessible, affordable national retailers, many of whom are desperately seeking new markets.

Today's writer

Milt Rosenbaum and his wife operated Hosiery World on Saratoga Street from 1971 to 2000 and have owned property in the area for many years.

The Rosenbaums are building what they believe will be the first new retail structure in downtown Baltimore in 30 years at Eutaw and Saratoga streets.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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