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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Mayor seeks supermarket tax credit for ‘food deserts’

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration is unveiling legislation to give supermarkets in Baltimore’s “food desert” neighborhoods an 80 percent tax break.

The legislation will be introduced in the Baltimore City Council on Monday. It’s aimed at enticing supermarkets to open in economically disadvantaged areas that do not have easy access to grocery stores.

“Supermarkets are committed to providing food access, yet they often have policy and financial barriers that make it difficult for them to do so. This credit is a critical tool in attracting and retaining high quality retailers in Baltimore’s food deserts, and providing residents with the food access they want and need,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement emailed to reporters.

In a city with a population of about 620,000 people, 25 percent of the population — and 30 percent of children — live in food deserts. Baltimore defines a food desert as an area where the distance to a supermarket or alternative is more than a quarter mile; the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level; and more than 30 percent of households don’t have access to a vehicle. The designation also takes into account the average Health Food Availability Index score, which measures access to healthy foods at area stores.

“It’s really all about where you live and if you can get to a grocery store without having a vehicle and being low income. That’s why we’re using a quarter-mile radius, because that is what we know from our research the most someone will walk to get to a store,” said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore City Food Policy director.

The personal property tax credit is available to supermarkets that open in a Food Desert Incentive Area. Incentive areas are defined as a food desert and a quarter-mile buffer zone.To qualify for the credit, a market must provide all major food departments, such as produce, meat and dairy. More than half of total receipts must come from food sales, and more than 50 percent of the store’s total floor space must be dedicated to selling food.

The tax credit is also available to existing stores in communities that would be a Food Desert Incentive Area if the market closed. Those stores are required to make a $150,000 personal property investment or $25-per-square-foot of total space to be eligible.

Michael Snidal, Baltimore Development Corp.’s West Team director, said the city knows there’s room for more grocery stores. He said his organization has spent a lot of time working with grocery stores and that the tax credit is “very significant to them.” He mentioned a similar tax credit enacted in Washington, D.C., as an example of a comparable measure producing positive results.

“Grocery stores … they have very low margins of profit. They don’t take huge risks when coming into neighborhoods, and we know … there is room for grocery stores in Baltimore City’s food deserts” Snidal said. “This is just one of many tools that will lure them into the city.”

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.