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After Freddie Gray riots, business repair continues

After riots, repair continues: "We have a lot of hope."

After the officials went away Friday, the repairs continued at Sneaky Feet.

Up a ladder, a crew screwed a new security camera into place to survey the Highlandtown sports store, which reopened Aug. 1, more than three months after looters struck the shop during April's riots.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake visited the shop Friday to highlight its story as a testament to her administration's support for business and a sign of the city's resilience. She also urged people to continue to support city stores as part of a "buy local" campaign that includes promotions for local restaurants and attractions.

"We want the focus of all our residents to be on supporting local business," she said. "When we do that, we can all be a part of the healing of Baltimore."

About 400 businesses were damaged in the riots, according to the Baltimore Development Corp, which has distributed more than $450,000 in grants and loans to at least 62 stores as part of the recovery effort.

Most stores have reopened, but some continue to report struggles. Rawlings-Blake said her administration wants to help with their recovery.

Last week, she unveiled a planning effort focused on revitalizing five commercial corridors, including Greenmount Avenue. The buy-local campaign comes in advance of the state's tax-free back-to-school week, when qualifying apparel and footwear purchases under $100 are exempt from state sales tax, which starts Sunday.

"We are looking to do everything we can to support small-business growth," she said, "because we know when we support small business, small business supports our economy and puts people to work."

It's too early to say with certainty how the riots have affected the city's economy, said Richard Clinch, a Baltimore-based research economist at the Battelle Memorial Institute. Clinch said he expects a short-term slowdown but doesn't believe the civil unrest will disrupt progress brought by national economic recovery since the recession, as well as a return of jobs and people to urban centers.

"Baltimore City has benefited from good trends," he said. "I don't think that this is going to derail those good trends unless [the unrest] happens again."

While Clinch said monthly jobs estimates can be unreliable, the Labor Department's survey of businesses found payroll counts in Baltimore declined by about 3,600 between May and June. The state lost jobs at a similar rate, however, and the city's employment remained higher than in June of last year.

Tourism has also taken a hit. The number of hotel rooms filled in the Baltimore metro area fell nearly 3 percent in May compared to the year prior — the first year-over-year decline in 18 months, according to data from Smith Travel Research. In June, demand at the 266 hotels fell less than 1 percent.

In Baltimore City, hotel occupancy is down an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent and attractions have likely suffered a bit more because of a smaller number of day-trippers, said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency.

"It's going to take some time to recover," he said. "But we've seen that gap narrow already, so hopefully that trend will continue."

For the owners of Sneaky Feet, recovery was never a sure thing. Looters took or smashed nearly everything in the shop: sneakers, computers, the cash register — some $150,000 in damage, said owner Mario Diaz, 50.

But State Farm insurance kicked in. The BDC and state provided a combined $70,000 in loans, and the Highlandtown Main Street program helped, as well. The store has a new door, some new windows and a new layout — more stock is held in a storage room instead of out on the floor, in an effort to increase security.

Since reopening Aug. 1, sales have been slow and Diaz said he remains worried about the possibility of another riot. But he and his son said they are optimistic that marketing efforts — like a party organized for Saturday — will help bring shoppers back.

"We have a lot of hope," Diaz said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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