Vacant houses into storefronts

(KIM HAIRSTON, Baltimore…)
May 19, 2010|By Natalie Stein

This essay is selected from the work of Johns Hopkins University freshmen in the course "B'more Innovative: Studying Change Through Charm City." The course explored how ideas and innovations spread through society using case studies associated with Baltimore (e.g., Johns Hopkins Medicine, Project Love — Baltimore, The Afro Newspapers, B&O Railroad). The final assignment required students to propose an innovative project and describe how they would spread or "diffuse" it. These essays summarize key concepts from several proposals. Additional essays are at The student authors invite you to read and comment on their proposals. Michael Reese, the course instructor, is the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Educational Resources and a doctoral student in sociology.

Abandoned row houses are common in Baltimore. The dilapidated buildings not only exacerbate the run-down appearance of neighborhoods but highlight the city's high homelessness and unemployment rates. I propose that local universities and colleges and universities purchase some of these run-down row houses in campus-neighboring areas to be redeveloped as storefronts. The storefronts would be used by business students for projects in which they would attempt to start and run small businesses. This effort would not only improve the appearance of the communities but would also supply jobs and boost local morale.

To make these stores attractive to local residents, each shop would address a specific need in the community, such as a small market with fresh fruits and vegetables or a laundromat. Students would research what a community needs most. This would improve the quality of life in local communities and also promote interaction between students and local residents.

Because it would not be feasible or desirable to start new businesses every year, the first class of students involved would select the type of stores to be built (with input from local residents), and subsequent classes would inherit those businesses, working to keep them successful.

The goals of the project are to revitalize rundown neighborhoods, improve Baltimore's public image, raise money for the communities and give students hands-on experience in business and in their community in general. The profits produced by the stores would be split between paying employees, funding community projects and refunding universities for their original investments.

To help run the businesses — as the students cannot be in the stores all day — Baltimore public school students could work there to gain hands-on experience helping to run a business, and local community members can be hired for full-time jobs, reducing unemployment and making the stores more of a community effort.

Student and neighborhood leaders would be charged with spreading the word about this project and the opportunities it presents. Target customers beyond the immediate neighborhoods would include other students, coming to the stores to support their friends' projects; therefore, the stores would be publicized in school announcements and social media. To draw more potential customers, the students would interact with community leaders and local politicians on a regular basis to ensure the needs of the community are being met. In addition to advertising in college-specific publications, local news stations and newspapers should be asked to report on the efforts of the students and spread their message of neighborhood revitalization and student empowerment.

Overall, this project should eventually serve many causes. Universities will benefit from good publicity in the communities; business students and Baltimore high school students will gain valuable, hands-on experience in retail; neighborhoods will be improved, and jobs will be created. Hopefully, this project will succeed and improve the lives of many in Baltimore, especially if it gets enacted by many universities at once, and its effects could be spread across the city.

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