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Baltimore’s West Side merchants see hope in consumer survey

Steve Samuelson, president of Samuelson's Diamonds and the Market Center Merchants Association. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Steve Samuelson, president of Samuelson’s Diamonds and the Market Center Merchants Association. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Members of the Market Center Merchants Association aren’t naive about the perception of downtown Baltimore’s West Side.

Steve Samuelson, of Samuelson’s Diamonds and the chairman of the association’s board, acknowledges that many people think of the greater Lexington Market area as unsafe.

“Especially after Freddie Gray it’s perceived as a dangerous place to come,” Samuelson said, in reference to the riots that erupted in April following the death of a 25-year-old man from injuries suffered in police custody.

But a recent survey of consumers, conducted by marketing firm Sagesse Inc., shows reason for optimism. Survey results, which were released on Thursday as part of the merchants association’s launch of new initiatives to improve the area, revealed a consumer base with many desirable traits.

According to the consumers surveyed, about 65 percent responded that they worked in the area, while nearly 25 percent said they went to school in the area and another roughly 25 percent said they lived around the market district. (The numbers don’t equal 100 percent because respondents could select multiple answers.)

The highest percentage of consumers were between the ages of 25 and 34; slightly more than 90 percent of all consumers surveyed were college graduates or held a postgraduate degree; and the majority of respondents had household incomes of at least $50,000 a year. Tracy Gosson, Sagesse Inc.’s president, pointed out those numbers would be very attractive to any retailer.

West Side Market Center map. (Sagesse Inc. map)

West Side Market Center map. (Sagesse Inc. map)

However, the same survey found that about 75 percent of consumers said they rarely or never shopped in the downtown market center area. Despite nearly 75 percent of respondents saying the most likely recreation activity they’d participate in downtown would be dining, about 85 percent of respondents said they only eat out in the area monthly, rarely or never.

Scott Garfield, the business development manager at Lexington Market who is leading efforts to form a new marketing strategy, said a major problem is that there’s not a single identity for the area. But judging from the survey results he feels the time is ripe to become a dining district and that a home furnishings store would do well on the West Side.

Garfield, who has a background in commercial real estate, also said that redevelopment in the area has not taken hold, sometimes puzzlingly so. He pointed out the 400 block of West Baltimore Street, which has been transformed through redevelopment by Samuelson and David S. Brown Enterprises. That project now has popular tenants such as Panera Bread and Nando’s Peri-Peri. Despite the maxim “food following food,” those retailers haven’t attracted many similar businesses to surrounding blocks as he expected.

“The problem is that 50-60 of them should’ve followed but didn’t,” Garfield said.

Despite the long road toward West Side redevelopment — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it has received $1 billion in investment since 2011 — the Market Center Merchants Association sees better days ahead for the area that was once Baltimore’s shopping hub.

“We want to show businesses this is the place to locate,” Samuelson said.

About Adam Bednar

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