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Baltimore woos grocers in Las Vegas

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Baltimore economic development officials are hoping to convince grocery store chains to open stores in underserved parts of the city. (File photo)

The major goal for Baltimore during the recent ICSC RECon convention in Las Vegas was to spur interest in grocers to move to the city.

Baltimore Development Corp. President and CEO William H. Cole said officials from the city’s quasi-governmental economic development agency met with almost every grocer operating or interested in operating in the region.

“We spent a lot of time pitching sites,” Cole said following a BDC board meeting on Thursday.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who took office in December, has made it clear she wants the BDC more focused on economic development issues in the city’s neighborhoods outside of downtown. The mayor has led members of her administration on bus tours of east and west Baltimore to highlight issues plaguing neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment.

A particular issue she wants addressed is food deserts in the city. A 2015 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found one in four city residents live in a food desert. That report found access to grocers had a stark racial component, with 34 percent of black residents living in food deserts compared to only 8 percent of white residents.

Baltimore’s Health Department defines a food desert as an area of the city with more than a quarter-mile distance to a grocery store; the media income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level; and 30 percent of homes don’t have access to a motor vehicle.

Officials met with chains, such as Giant, Safeway and Lidl, Cole said, about moving to or adding stores in the city. He called grocery stores important hubs that spur economic development because they tend to attract other retailers.  But he admitted there are some limitations, because some brands, such as Wegmans, have models for store size and parking that can’t be met in urban neighborhoods.

BDC officials pitched grocers on about two dozen sites the agency feels would be good fits for supermarket. Cole said none of the grocers he met with cited worries about the April 2015 riots as a reason not to do business in Baltimore.

“I didn’t hear a single time in any meeting a single mention of the unrest,” he said

Meetings with chains in Las Vegas focused on letting those businesses know about tax incentives for opening a store in a food desert, Cole said, and trying to convince stores of the purchasing power in some of the communities. Convincing stores that lower-income communities have enough purchasing power is important, he said, because the stores operate on such slim margins.

“We’re looking for a way to make it easier for grocers to take what they may consider a risk,” Cole said


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