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Impact of unrest still lingering for some Baltimore businesses

Months after the unrest, some Baltimore businesses still haven't reopened.

After rioters looted and burned the Rite Aid on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the pharmacy served customers for months out of a temporary trailer in the parking lot.

On Tuesday, Rite Aid executives, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Rep. Elijah Cummings and other dignitaries held a ribbon cutting to celebrate what otherwise might have been an unremarkable reopening.

Six months after riots that damaged the Rite Aid and other businesses across the city, the symbolism was important: A national corporation choosing to reopen instead of shutting its doors.

As Baltimore works to rebuild from the unrest following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from spinal cord injuries suffered in police custody, signs of that recovery can be seen around the city. A new national eatery opened at Mondawmin Mall, near where the riots began; a senior center that burned to the ground is rising again in East Baltimore; and two CVS/pharmacy stores devastated by the riots are under construction to reopen.

"I thank Rite Aid for realizing that sometimes things don't always go right," Cummings said. "We are a city that may stumble from time to time. But we get up, and we keep going, and Rite Aid is a part of that 'keep going,' and we appreciate it."

Roughly 400 businesses had merchandise stolen and were damaged in the riots, according to the Baltimore Development Corp. About 7 percent of those businesses have yet to reopen because they were so significantly damaged, according to the BDC, the city's economic development arm.

The BDC awarded more than 60 grants and loans worth more than $400,000 to help some of the damaged businesses reopen.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development has also been providing businesses no-interest loans up to $35,000 and larger low-interest loans for demolition, construction or other recovery projects. The agency did not respond to a request for an update on the program Tuesday.

Stores still shuttered after the riots include the two CVS/pharmacies, which are scheduled to reopen early next year, said Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for the Rhode Island-based drugstore chain. The CVS at the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, at the epicenter of the riots, was demolished after looting and arson and is being rebuilt.

Mondawmin Mall, where the rioting began, reopened days later. But for some stores, the impact lingered long after that.

Elite Gold & Diamonds in Mondawmin Mall was closed for a month after rioters smashed through the front door and the glass display cases to steal rings, necklaces and other jewelry in April, manager Zee Aslam said.

While other stores that weren't hit so hard reopened soon after the riots, Elite needed extra time to replace windows, carpets, display cases and merchandise, he said. He declined to say how much was stolen or what the repairs cost.

Six months later, diamonds, gold chains, rosaries and pendants — in shapes ranging from a cross to a dollar sign — glitter from behind the counter. But Aslam said the store still feels the effects.

"Some days it's good business. Some days, it's like, well, you see," he said, gesturing around the nearly empty store Tuesday afternoon. "It's almost the same since before the riots. Overall, we're getting back to normal."

Sharesse Bobbit, assistant manager at Payless ShoeSource downstairs in the mall, said the citywide curfew imposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after the riot cut into the discount shoe store's business by forcing it to close early each night.

"We had the National Guard outside," she said. "Walking past those big guns, it was like 'Call of Duty' in real life."

In the days after the riot, Bobbit saw a lull in customers, many of whom didn't know whether the stores in the mall were open, she said. The April 27 unrest began outside Mondawmin with a confrontation between teens and police in riot gear.

Business has since recovered, Bobbit said, as she climbed a ladder to restock shoe boxes Tuesday afternoon.

"People have been coming in to shop, but they ask questions [about that day]," she said. "It's like it's a part of history, like it's a museum or something."

Bryant Ford, executive team leader at the nearby Target, said the community was hit harder than his store. Target stayed open whenever possible so people could get their "mainstream items," he said.

"People still need toilet paper, toothpaste, infant formula," Ford said.

After the riot, Target corporate management sent counselors to the Mondawmin store to assist any of the roughly 150 to 200 employees who needed them, he said.

In the aftermath, "the community came together," he said. "It was a lot of emotion. It's the first time in a long time I've seen the community come together like that."

Business has recovered for the most part, Bryant said, but the store, like many, is "looking forward to the holidays."

And the mall is moving forward: A new TGI Friday's restaurant opened there last month.

Rite Aid spent at least $1 million to clean up and upgrade the inside of its store at 300 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Bryan Everett, executive director of store operations, said the company was thrilled to reopen after months working out of the temporary trailer in the parking lot.

"This certainly wasn't the ideal situation for us, but we knew we had to do it in order to continue serving our customers and patients," he said. "We look forward to welcoming the community back to our beautiful new store."

In East Baltimore, another devastated symbol of the riots is well on its way to completion again. The Mary Harvin Transformation Center in Broadway East — which was under construction the day of the riots — was set ablaze in a case the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is still investigating.

Prior to the arson, it had been scheduled to open in November.

The $16 million center, which will include 61 affordable apartments for senior citizens and a community center with job training, housing counseling and other services, is now expected to open next spring. But the Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr., pastor of the church backing the project, Southern Baptist on North Chester Street, said it could reopen as early as February.

The builder was insured for the cost of the damage, he said.

"When the building was initially going up, it sparked hope in the community. When it burned down, it caused discouragement," Hickman said.

His church has acquired about 200 vacant properties and lots with a vision of building a family community center and a recreation center for children.

"This is actually what the community needed to see and what the city needs all over," Hickman said, "to revitalize and rebuild."

cwells@baltsun.com

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