Baltimore health officials and people who live in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods want to see a bunch of liquor stores go away; there are too many of them concentrated in certain parts of town, and many of them have operated in violation of zoning codes for years. So it's time for a change. You look at some of these stores and — no offense to their owners — you think: Don't people in these neighborhoods deserve better, or at least something else?
The liquor store, sometimes the only retailer of any kind for blocks of west or east Baltimore, is a symbol of the old, poor and unhealthy city that is finally getting attention after years of civic focus on downtown and the waterfront. In recent years, studies by the city and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed a 20-year gap in life expectancy between people who live in parts of West Baltimore and people who live on the north side. Death rates from heart disease and stroke in some low-income areas are more than twice as high as in more affluent neighborhoods just a few miles away. The city has benefited from a succession of three smart, forward-thinking health commissioners who have been working on these problems for more than a decade.
So that's the context for all this — an effort by the local government to improve public health where that effort is needed most.
Health and planning officials say there's a correlation between high concentrations of liquor stores and violent crime. But you don't even need that dubious correlation to make the case for change. Anyone who's spent any time on the bleak streets can tell you about the liquor store's contribution to the depressing — read that, unhealthy — atmosphere of a given block or neighborhood. It just can't be good for the children to walk past two or three liquor stores on their way to school. This isn't the New Prohibition. This is about reducing density.
Of course, the backlash that followed the roll-out of the city's ambitious plan was predictable. Some people think this is a bunch of nanny-state baloney, a sort of property grab wholly unfair to the owners of liquor stores.
Bryan Everett is attorney for the Korean-American retailers who own the vast majority of the stores on the city's hit list. He points out that the retailers' association awards more than $20,000 in scholarships each year to city students. "The liquor store owners give money and donate sodas and snacks to community events," Everett says. "Sometimes, they stage the events themselves, feeding hundreds of their neighbors at a time. The reason no one knows about these things is because the store owners aren't doing it for good PR. They're doing it because they care about their neighbors."
Mr. Everett says that "dozens of families stand to lose everything because of inconclusive research and a failure by the city to work with them before announcing their draconian plans."
So, look, before this gets out of hand and the city and the retailers end up in federal court, allow me to make some suggestions:
•Have the mayor establish an independent nonprofit organization to assess the needs for new kinds of retail in the neighborhoods targeted for a zoning change in the city's plan. There are serious food deserts in these parts of town — not enough supermarkets, not enough corner groceries that sell fresh meat and produce. Take this opportunity to do something about it.
•The nonprofit would have 15 members — three of them liquor licensees who would be affected by the city's plan; three retail executives; the city's food policy czar; two health experts or nutritionists; and six representatives of community associations in areas targeted for change. The nonprofit would have a small staff funded by the city and by private donations.
•The nonprofit would oversee the transformation of some liquor stores into grocery stores, bakeries or small restaurants. The nonprofit board can work through the Baltimore Development Corp. to negotiate low-interest loans to make these transformations happen.
•Invite each of the nonconforming stores to convert to one of these new uses, and give them 36 months to do it. Some of the people who own these liquor stores have connections for funding, or they — or their adult children — could work through the BDC to get the money needed to overhaul their stores. They should consider this an opportunity to build something for the future — for their families and for their neighbors.
•Give the store owners free advice, and lots of it. Bring in experts to help with business plans.
•Stage a series of smart-shopper and cooking classes in neighborhoods affected by the zoning change. There are plenty of nonprofits that would donate their time for this cause.
There's enough brainpower in Baltimore — among health officials, Hopkins smarties and the Korean-American business owners and their kin — to make this sort of thing happen. A guy with a master's in business administration, quoting his grandmother, once told me: "Never make a problem out of an opportunity."
Well, here we go.