Staying - or moving?

Federal Hill: As retail vacancies persist, Shofer's furniture store must decide its future.

January 09, 2002

THE WORST corner is at Light Street, just south of Cross Street Market.

On one side, the former Epstein's department store building is almost totally empty. On the other side, a Rite Aid store is closed.

This is what has become of one of Baltimore's once-vibrant shopping districts. The Light Street corridor - known as historic Federal Hill's main street - is now a jumble of papered-over storefronts.

"Light Street is the area that needs the most work," acknowledges Bonnie J. Crockett, acting executive director of Federal Hill Main Street.

Her 1-year-old volunteer organization has scored some notable successes.

A dozen new businesses have opened, at least two pubs have expanded, and Dan Brothers, a six-decades-old landmark shoe store that was eulogized in columns and news stories after its founder's death two years ago, has reopened under new ownership.

Nevertheless, a perturbing number of retail vacancies persist. It seems that only restaurants - which now number 45 - have benefited from Federal Hill's transformation from a blue-collar neighborhood into one of the city's wealthiest residential areas.

City Hall's commitment to rebuilding Federal Hill retail will soon be tested. Shofer's, the last major furniture store within Baltimore City limits, wants to double the size of its current 40,000-square-foot store.

"I have to grow the business - either here or somewhere else," President Henry Shofer explained. The alternative is to move the 88-year-old company closer to the Washington area, where many of its customers live.

Shofer's would prefer to stay on South Charles Street. But in order to do so, it will need variances from municipal authorities, including permission to construct an addition in the historic district.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration should welcome and facilitate Shofer's expansion. The showroom is an important retail anchor and one reason why a growing number of design firms have moved to Federal Hill.

Losing Shofer's would be a disaster.

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