Immediately following Monday’s controversial vote by the Baltimore City Council to rezone 11 acres in Remington for a complex featuring Walmart and Lowe’s, some small businesses in the area began to brace for the retail battle ahead.
“It’s kind of intimidating,” said Deborah Falkenhan, owner of Falkenhan’s Hardware, at 3401 Chestnut Ave. in Hampden, near the proposed site.
The 40-foot by 60-foot hardware store is a far cry from the big-box design of a Walmart or Lowe’s. It has been there for 100 years and has a dozen or less of certain items in stock, Falkenhan said.
Yet she is showing spunk as the development cleared its final hurdle before construction.
With her store known for personalized service and quick repairs of broken windows and torn screens, Falkenhan said she believes she has an edge over the retailing giants.
“Wal-Mart doesn’t cut glass or explain how to fix a faucet,” she said. “And the majority of people who live in the area know where they can get stuff. Probably 90 percent of the time when you come in, I am here. I tell my customers, ‘as long as you keep coming, I’ll be here.’ ”
Falkenhan, whose family has owned the store since 1968, is one of a handful of merchants who occupy older storefronts in the urban landscape near 25th and Howard streets where the proposed development called 25th Street Station will be built beginning in the spring. The site now holds a portion of Anderson Automotive, the city’s last remaining auto dealership, which is moving to Hunt Valley.
On Tuesday, some merchants expressed mixed feelings about the new retailers, who will build a complex that includes apartments and eateries on what for years has been a nondescript corner of a struggling neighborhood about five miles from center city.
“I think it will be a good thing,” said Rick Reeve, owner of Baltimore Finishing Works, a paint stripping company that sits directly across from where the new development will go.
“As far as it hurting our business, I don’t think so. If anything, it could help because people will see us here,” he said.”
Reeve has been stripping and staining wood and metal on the corner for decades. His grandfather opened the business there in 1921. He said he is optimistic about the development’s impact on Remington.
“It will help the city,” he said. “It is good for this neighborhood because there’s nothing here now.”
His brother, Michael Reeve, agreed.
“It is good because of the jobs that will come here and it will be an upgrade to the community,” he said. “This community has suffered long enough from abuse and neglect. It’s time to raise it up. Property values will rise.”
At the New Wyman Park Restaurant at 25th and Howard streets, owner Spiro Conits said the development will boost business. Known for traditional egg-bacon-and-toast breakfasts and a smooth bowl of rice pudding, the restaurant is a Remington institution.
“I guess it will bring more business around here,” Conits said, playing down other, more contemporary eateries expected to move in, too. “It will be a good thing and will build up the neighborhood a little more.”
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she is pushing to get one more signature to reintroduce legislation that would require merchants in the city to pay a living wage of $10.59 per hour. That would force companies such as Wal-Mart, a company known for not paying salaries higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, to pay higher wages.
Clarke said the developer, Rick Walker, has been granted a 10-year tax break because the complex is in a city “focus” district. The break means the owners of 25th Street Station will pay the same taxes Anderson Automotive pays today for 10 years, plus 20 percent of the new, higher assessment with the improvements.
Like some of the merchants, Clarke said she is concerned about the impact that the Wal-Mart and Lowe’s stores will have on existing businesses.
She said Walker had made a written commitment to the city to provide “some funding” to local businesses to assist them during the transition. In addition, Walker has paid $260,000 for a traffic impact study and new traffic signals that will be needed once construction begins.
“I’m going to follow up and make sure the local businesses get involved and take advantage of that safety net,” said Clarke, whose district abuts the development site.
“What we really need is for the big stores not to under-price the locals. When they do, they drive the locals down and in two years, when the locals are out of business, they raise prices back to normal,” she said.
That is also a concern for the local advocacy group, Baltimore CAN. The group has protested and questioned allowing the 25th Street Station and its impact on the community since plans were first unveiled just over a year ago.
“There will be a huge traffic impact on that corner,” said Betty G. Robinson, an organizer with Baltimore CAN. “The study said that now there are 120 roundtrips at that corner on any weekend day. After the 25th Street Station opens, it is expected to be 5,000 roundtrips on a weekend day.”
The group is also pushing for the hiring of local residents in the new jobs at Walmart and Lowe’s and supports the living wage legislation.
“We’re not opposed to retail,” Robinson said. “We are opposed to poverty development. You can’t grow a city on part-time, minimum-wage jobs.”