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‘Get us a foothold’: Project Restore helps small businesses revive retail, commercial spaces

Culinary Architecture Market + Kitchen in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood tapped money from Project Restore to expand its operations into what had been vacant space next door. (Submitted photo)

Walking through the door at Culinary Architecture Market + Kitchen in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood, a visitor passes a display showcasing Australian meat pies, sausage rolls, homemade cookies and other specialty items under the slogan “the biggest little grocery store.”

Looking at the vibrant shop, it’s hard to believe the space had not long ago been vacant for a year.

Owner Sylva Lin, who’d been operating a catering and specialty foods business from a small location next door, said that, when the pandemic hit, “all the catering in the world dried up.”

Quickly pivoting, Lin invested more in the market side of the business. Also, through membership in Pigtown Main Street, Lin found out about Project Restore, a state program to help small or expanding businesses revitalize vacant retail and commercial properties. Lin successfully applied and received rent support to expand into the vacant, and bigger, space next door.

“We were able to expand our business and better stay afloat,” Lin said. “Times are very unpredictable right now, and the more revenue streams you have the better your chance of survival.”

This poster adorns the wall of Culinary Market + Kitchen in Pigtown. (Submitted photo)

Culinary Architecture Market + Kitchen was one of 352 Maryland businesses helped by the $25 million program, which provides up to $2,500 a month in rent subsidies. The program also has provided business operations grants of up to $250,000 a year. Altogether, Project Restore, administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, supported businesses with more than 1,600 full-time employees.

The fiscal 2023 budget approved by the General Assembly last month included $25 million to refund the program, which has been championed by Gov. Larry Hogan. An effort to make it permanent was unsuccessful.

Carol Anne Gilbert, assistant secretary for the Division of Neighborhood Revitalization at the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency evaluated more than 800 applications with $75 million in requests before it chose the 352 grantees.

Of the businesses that have benefited so far, 143 are in designated Main Streets and 158 are in Opportunity Zones, or low-income areas, Gilbert said. The once-vacant properties have been used as retail, office and manufacturing space and as locations for breweries or distilleries, tasting rooms, event space and storage.

Gilbert said that while quaint, historic main streets are popular places to shop, their old buildings are expensive to rehabilitate.

“Project Restore offered a really new and innovative incentive to reinvest in these older business districts in Maryland,” she said.

Gilbert said she hoped Project Restore would continue beyond 2023.

“We’re already seeing very high impact in small business development and community revitalization,” she said. “We will be very assertive in evaluating the results so that we can make the case, and I think the case can be made, that it’s important to continue.”

One nonprofit that is hoping the program continues is AmaZing Theatre Company, located in a historic property in Sandy Springs thanks to Project Restore’s rental assistance. The company uses the building as a performance and community events space.

When the pandemic hit, AmaZing Theatre Company’s former venue was permanently shut. The company’s new home, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Lodge No. 6430, had just been renovated and Winston Anderson, who spearheaded the renovations, saw an AmaZing Theatre production and invited the company to move in — three months before the state grant came through in late April.

Alice Thomas, AmaZing’s executive director, said the African American theater company was honored to be invited to the historic building and had a sold-out showing of “Harriet Tubman: Defender & Fight for Freedom” in March.

“We’re trying to get the community to recapture the spirit that used to be there back in the 1900s, when this was the only building that was available for African Americans to come and gather and socialize and get information about what’s going on in society,” Thomas said of the Odd Fellows lodge.

As a nonprofit that receives some money from a county arts council and some from the state, the theater company has appreciated Project Restore’s rental assistance.

“This is really going to get us a foothold into expanding our programs and becoming a little more sustainable,” Thomas said.

The company will welcome patrons in July with its next production, “Angel in the Alley.” Project Restore’s next application cycle begins the same month.