West-Side Merchants Begin Relocating and Re-emerging
The merchants here are gone, involuntarily displaced as part of the city's sweeping, $350 million-plus plan to revitalize downtown's west side. This is where Bank of America is slated to build Centerpoint, a $55 million residential and commercial project that will fill the entire block bounded by Eutaw, Baltimore, Howard, and Fayette streets.
Among the last to leave this stretch were Lou and Judy Boulmetis, proprietors of Hippodrome Hatters, a 71-year-old family hat-cleaning and retail business at 15 N. Eutaw. The couple closed the store March 3 and reopened around the corner in leased space at 422 W. Baltimore St. two days later. The city bought their building last fall for $127,000, and, like a host of west-side merchants whose businesses and/or buildings are in the way of the revitalization plan, they received financial assistance from the city in making their move.
While Lou Boulmetis won't discuss the financial details of his relocation package, he seems pleased. He credits Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration with improving the situation for merchants exiled by a renewal initiative started under O'Malley's predecessor, Kurt Schmoke.
"To their credit, the city and Mayor O'Malley did what they had to do," Boulmetis says, standing in the new store as movers unload hat-making equipment and display racks. "They needed to make us whole. They needed to let us stay through the Christmas holidays."
Long outspoken opponents of the west-side plan, the Boulmetises are now quietly resigned to the initiative. They don't anticipate losing too much business as a result of their move and will soon send a change-of-address mailing to some 5,000 registered customers. (Their current location may be temporary; the couple would like to move into Centerpoint once it's completed and are negotiating lease rates with Bank of America.)
"We're doing OK," says Lou Boulmetis, one of the few west-side merchants to reopen in the immediate neighborhood. But not all affected merchants share his sentiments. The process of relocating businesses from the west side has so far played out with mixed results. Some small merchants feel their business and pocketbooks have been damaged by forced relocations. Meanwhile, the city's controversial and costly efforts to relocate a West Baltimore strip club, the El Dorado, continue to make headlines. (The city bought club owner Kenneth Jackson's building for nearly twice what he paid for it five years ago and is considering allowing him to buy a city-owned building at nearly a 10th of its appraised value.)
In addition to 25 businesses displaced by the Centerpoint project, 13 merchants have been forced to vacate a stretch of Lexington Street (where a parking garage will rise) and the first floor of the former Stewart's department-store building at Lexington and Howard streets (now being converted into office space).
"Quite a few [merchants] have gone out of business and just closed up," says John Murphy, a lawyer who's helped a half-dozen west-side businesspersons negotiate their closing/relocation compensation packages. "A number have moved out to various counties. For many, the move as been a very difficult process."
Young Kim Robinson received a letter last October telling her she had 30 days to vacate her beauty-supply store at the corner of Baltimore and Eutaw. Her store's building was condemned as part of the Maryland Stadium Authority's efforts to convert the adjacent Hippodrome Theatre into a performing-arts center.
"Shame on the Maryland Stadium Authority," Robinson says. "I'm not happy with how I was treated. I had to leave in the middle of winter. I lost business."
Though Robinson knew as early as last spring that she'd have to move her store , she had trouble finding a suitable new location. While City Hall allowed Hippodrome Hatters and other businesses to remain through the holidays, the Stadium Authority didn't give Robinson that option. "They told me I had to go, as they were going to tear the building down," she says. "Well, the building is still there."
(Robert Boras, the Stadium Authority's Hippodrome project leader, says hazardous materials are being removed from the building and that it might not be razed until June.)
Robinson opened her new store, Beauty Plus, at 328 N. Eutaw on Feb. 22. While she says she spent $50,000 of her own money to outfit the new space, Robinson is also one of the first to take advantage of a revolving loan fund set up last fall for relocated merchants. This city-sponsored initiative provides low-interest loans of up to $200,000 to help displaced merchants re-establish themselves in new locations within the neighborhood. Up to $25,000 of the loan will be forgiven if the merchant remains in business at the new site for five years, making it essentially a grant.
"The loan is designed to help offset the out-of-pocket costs that merchants and property owners might have in relocating to another place," says Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasipublic economic-development agency. Two merchants have been approved for loans, and four applications are pending, she says.
Merchants who move out of the west side can recoup only moving expenses, leaving businesses like the jewelry store Metro Broker Ltd., which moved from 4 N. Eutaw St. to Pikesville last summer, to cover the costs of setting up new shop.
"The relocation process is unfair to merchants," Metro owner Gene Petasky says. "Let's say you have showcases that are 20 years old, and the city pays $5,000 to move them. But then if you can't use them in your new space because of the way it's configured, and new ones costs $50,000, you're out $45,000."
Petasky says the move cost him "a couple hundred thousand dollars" and that he "put out considerably more money than I got back." But he says the potential for a low-interest loan/grant was not enough to keep his 25-year-old store on the west side. Family history convinced him to move to Baltimore County: Both his grandfather and father before him were Baltimore business owners forced to relocate to accommodate city initiatives.
"There was no way I was going to stay in the city," Petasky says. "You can't fight them."
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