Hampden Restaurant Owner Declares Victory In 'Flamingogate'

October 28, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

The owner of Cafe Hon is proclaiming a victory for small business after the city agreed to cut in half the cost of a permit to erect a pink flamingo sculpture outside her restaurant and promised to promote the Hampden neighborhood with new signs on the Jones Falls Expressway.

After a rally Tuesday outside City Hall where supporters erected scores of plastic pink flamingos, Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting praised Mayor Sheila Dixon for the decision.

Scott Peterson, a Dixon spokesman, said he hoped that "Flamingogate will now be behind us." He said there was "absolutely no favoritism" on behalf of the Hampden business owner in lowering the permit cost.

Whiting said she also met with officials of the city's Department of General Services as the compromise was being struck.

The city recalculated the size of the pink flamingo that extended over the West 36th Street sidewalk. Using different geometry, they cut the annual minor privilege permit charge from an initial estimate of $800 to $400.

Whiting said the flamingo would be reinstalled after it had been refurbished. She said the big bird was a symbol of the small businesses that make the city vibrant. "Entrepreneurship is what is driving the country today," she said.

The flamingo controversy began this month when Whiting complained about being charged $800 to keep the sculpture outside her business. She said an artist made the bird seven years ago and that it had never been subject to a minor privilege annual fee. News media printed and broadcast reports on the issue. Tuesday's rally, organized by 98 Rock, attracted nearly 50 supporters and filled War Memorial Plaza with plastic pink flamingos.

The city said it investigated the flamingo after receiving a complaint. Peterson clarified the nature of the complaint Tuesday by saying that it did not originate from the Hampden Village Merchants Association, but from another Hampden business entity.

Merchants Association President Benn Ray said, "As long as this policy applies to everyone equally and fairly, I have no problem." City officials called their initial $800 annual charge for the flamingo an "estimate." They said they arrived at the cost by treating the bird as a rectangle; after altering their geometry, they said the bird is more "like a triangle."

"We charge by the square foot," said Joe Kostow, of the Department of General Services. "Sometimes when a piece is irregularly shaped, it's hard to do exact dimensions."

He said city officials never took a tape measure to the flamingo.

Another property owner disagreed with the cost reduction.

"The city decided they are going to give her a discount," said Steven Sachs, who owns a parcel of Govans commercial real estate in the 5400 block of York Road. "That discriminates against other property owners. They're doing these people a favor and kicking everybody else in the butt."

Asked whether she were receiving special treatment, Whiting said, "People are going to say what they are going to say. I would never take a handout."

Whiting, who organizes the annual Hon Festival, said her interactions with Dixon led to an agreement that signs on the JFX would promote Hampden.

That caught Frank Murphy, a top official with the city's Transportation Department, by surprise.

"I just heard about it," he said. "Apparently, Hampden is a tourist destination. I wonder if Mount Washington, Roland Park and Cylburn will want the same thing on a sign, too."

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