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Kevin Bernhard, owner of Rust-N- Shine antique shop in Highlandtown, left. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A year after Freddie Gray unrest, business owners not shying away from Baltimore

Nearly 400 businesses were damaged in the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray last April, leaving their owners wondering whether they wanted to stay in the city or move elsewhere. But the question for people who wanted to open a business in Baltimore after the unrest was whether to open shop in the city at all.

For Kevin Bernhard, the answer was “yes.”

An architect by trade, Bernhard was passionate about going to auctions and wanted to turn it into a business by opening what he described as a “vintage retro store.”

From the beginning, Bernhard knew he wanted to open a business in Highlandtown. Aside from a being a resident in the Baltimore neighborhood for a decade, Bernhard was drawn to Highlandtown because of its smaller, affordable storefronts.

Bernhard was starting to think about opening his own shop and look at properties in the neighborhood last April, and seeing damaged storefronts didn’t shake him.

“If anything, it encouraged me that I had the means to transform something that currently was not being utilized to the fullest,” said Bernhard. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Exact impact unknown

City economic development officials were unable to provide an exact number of businesses that have opened in Baltimore since last April. The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which tracks businesses that are subject to provide unemployment insurance taxes, found that the city added 17 businesses from April to September last year. In that same period in 2014, the city added 10 businesses that fall under the department’s purview.

InfoUSA, a database that uses utility connections, state tax records, county court records, legal notices among other resources to track businesses, found that business growth in the city increased last year: 504 businesses opened in the city in 2015, compared to 373 in 2014.

Businesses that were damaged last year have also bounced back. In December, the Baltimore Development Corp. reported that 93 percent of the businesses damaged during the unrest have reopened. The BDC awarded $866,000 in the form of 72 grants and 30 loans to help those businesses.

In Highlandtown, eight new businesses opened between October and December, said Amanda Smit, manager of the Highlandtown Main Street Program. The neighborhood has maintained a vacancy rate under 10 percent.

“People just took a breath,” Smit said. “People knew that April and May would be a month of retention and making sure that things settled down.”

One of those eight new businesses is Bernhard’s, who opened Rust-N-Shine on Bank Street in October at a storefront that has been vacant for more than a decade. The building has a storied past, serving a rooming house combined with a laundromat in the 1950s and 1960s that was turned into a secondhand store.

Now, after almost six months in business, Bernhard is happy with how Rust-N-Shine is doing.

“People are always walking up and down the street. We’ve got amazing foot traffic,” he said.

In the past six months, Smit has seen an increase in people like Bernhard, who are looking at rehabbing properties or places where “you can’t just turn key,” she said.

“I never heard anyone say, ‘I was thinking about opening a business and now I’m not,’” she said of the post-unrest reaction. “Many people saw it as an opportunity.”

A lifelong dream

That mentality was not unique to Highlandtown.

In Mount Vernon, LaQuita Carrington opened Qui Piece, a fashion boutique and salon on Charles Street, just a block away from a dozen businesses that were damaged last April. But for Carrington, the store fulfilled a lifelong dream.

“I decided to go forth with it because I just want to add to what we can offer here as a local business,” said Carrington. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Carrington studied business and entrepreneurship at Morgan State University and was an associate account manager at a medical device startup when the storefront became available. With a background in retail and high fashion, Carrington has been talking about opening her own store for a long time, but it was just talk.

“The process really started fast,” she said.

Carrington was optimistic about opening a business in the city and didn’t let the damage from the unrest impact her decision. Qui Piece is still getting on its feet and growing its client base. A few weeks ago, the boutique hosted a dinner for Thread, a group based at Johns Hopkins University that helps provide resources to underprivileged high school students.

Mount Vernon has seen a range of new businesses open in the neighborhood since last April, particularly bars and cafes.

“Despite the events of the uprising, we have continued to see business growth which has been very encouraging,” said Brian Levy, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.

Eight businesses, including the Mount Vernon Marketplace, a consortium of 14 shops, opened in the past year, according to Kristin Speaker, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp. The number of businesses opening in the area has not changed compared to previous years, she added.

“When it comes to the vandalizing, I don’t think that anything like that would happen again because the city has learned from that incident,” said Carrington. “You can’t live your life or your business in fear like that. Every city, every state has their issues and businesses have to keep moving on.”