Street vendors complain of squeeze play


When the Orioles play at home, Jerry Smith flips sizzling Polish and Italian sausages, hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill at the corner of Pratt and Howard streets.

"Two hot dogs, a soda and a bag of chips for four bucks, folks," he calls in a singsong voice. "Cheaper on the outside. Take it inside with you, folks."

But this year, there aren't as many folks passing by to hear Smith's pitch. Many of his colleagues blame city construction - but others say the O's lackluster season hasn't helped, either.

Shortly before Opening Day, the city transportation department prohibited vendors from setting up in front of the main entrance to Camden Yards because of construction of the city-owned Hilton Hotel across Camden Street.

The hawkers, many of whom have peddled peanuts, T-shirts and sodas outside the stadium for more than a decade, have scattered. They've pitched their brightly colored tents a block or two away - but many complain they're inaccessible to customers.

"We're starving; it's terrible," said Joe Markiewicz, who sells bottles of soda for a dollar - a fraction of the price inside the stadium. He said sales are down 75 percent this year, and sometimes he loses as much as $50 a day. "I'm really thinking of folding up after this year," he said.

Although a few hawk food on the west side of the stadium, most of the refugees have set up along the east side of Howard Street next to the Convention Center.

However, most fans who come from the direction of Harborplace walk along the opposite side of the street, closer to the stadium. Fans coming from the stadium have to cross the light rail tracks as well as six lanes of traffic to check out the food and souvenirs.

"It's dangerous crossing that street, even for an adult," said Max Rozga of Pikesville. He attended yesterday's game with his son, Matthew, 7, who wore an oversized Orioles cap and an orange jersey with his name on the back.

The Rozgas bought water across Howard Street, then drank it sitting on the sidewalk as they waited for the stadium gates to open.

"It ruins the atmosphere," Rozga said. "It used to be much more festive. Over there, it doesn't even feel like the ball park."

Fans waiting to enter the stadium these days look out onto a deserted Camden Street and a construction site ringed with a chain link fence and green mesh.

"I don't see why the vendors wouldn't be allowed to be here," said Kevin Pfister of Silver Spring, as he looked at the construction site. "I mean, how far away from the ball park do you want to put them?"

City transportation officials said they relocated the vendors for this season to alleviate congestion before and after the game. Even at their new locations, they must stop selling food at the end of the seventh inning, according to the new regulations.

Department spokesman David Brown was not available for comment yesterday.

As he chopped onions at his family's stand, Tony Garrison said that the new location and shorter hours have sliced his family's profits in half. Last year, they made more than $1,000 a game; this year, they average $500.

"You still make a profit, but it's not like it used to be," Garrison said.

Farther down the street, Jeff Ingerman sells puffy, soft pretzels that he brings down from Philadelphia.

"Last year, I wasn't setting the world on fire, but I was making a living for my family," Ingerman said. This summer, with higher gas prices and fewer sales, Ingerman has seen his profits drop by 50 percent. He said he planned to move his pretzel stand to Washington when a new stadium opens there.

Some vendors who have been forced to move said this is simply a poor season for sales. "It's been a slow year, no crowds, no anticipation of winning," said Chuck Parsons, who was roasting peanuts on the north side of Pratt Street.

Fewer people come to ballpark each year, said Parsons, who has sold paper bags of peanuts in the same location for the past 14 years. Oriole attendance figures confirm that, showing a drop of more than 300,000 compared to the same time last year.

Many vendors are convinced that sidewalk stands are on the way out. "It blessed me for the time that we had it," said James Yerby, sitting on a cooler and mopping sweat off his forehead with a white towel. His family has sold grilled meats, pistachios, peanuts and drinks at baseball games for 18 years. They began when the O's were still at Memorial Stadium, but now they're thinking of abandoning the business.

Garrison is even more pessimistic: "Soon as you know it, we're all going to be gone from here."

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