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Santoni's closing Highlandtown store

Santoni's Supermarket, an institution in southeast Baltimore since the 1930s, will close by the end of the month and lay off more than 80 employees, its owner said Sunday, citing Baltimore's bottled-beverage tax as "the sole reason" for the store's failure.

"Since the beverage tax levy went into effect in July 2010, Santoni's has realized total store sales loss in excess of $4 million or 18 percent," Robert Santoni Jr. said in a news release. "But the beverage sales category has experienced sales decreases exceeding 28 percent during the same time period.

"Since the tax went into effect, customer traffic count has decreased 20 percent. The damage done by the beverage tax is irreversible and evidence that Baltimore retailers were right all along"

Santoni, who serves as chairman of the Maryland Food Dealers Council, has been a high-profile and outspoken critic of the city's budget and taxation policies in recent years.

He was vehement in protests of the decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council to raise the tax on bottled beverages, arguing that many of his customers who lived in the southeastern stretch of the city would buy soda and other bottled drinks at lower prices in Baltimore County.

In late 2010, five months after the 2-cent tax was imposed, Santoni claimed that year-over-year sales at his Baltimore store had fallen 3 percent since the tax was first collected, and that 600 fewer customers were entering each week.

The 2-cent bottle tax was part of a package of fees that Rawlings-Blake and other city officials said was intended to help close a $121 million gap in the city's $1.2 billion budget.

The bottle tax went up to 5 cents in July, a move advocated by the mayor and approved by the City Council last year to help raise money to renovate city schools.

In his release Sunday, Santoni said: "The Mayor has refused to listen to small business leaders. She is stubborn and will not admit that the beverage tax was a wrong decision on her part. Her insistence that Baltimore retailers carry this burden has not only cost my family our business, but the jobs of my employees.

"The City has lost a great retailer and the Highlandtown community is losing a passionate and charitable partner."

The mayor released a statement Sunday, saying she was saddened to learn Santoni's would be closing, but she disputed that bottle tax was the cause.

"Linking its closure to the bottle tax may be a good soundbite but it doesn't square with the facts," Rawlings-Blake said. "By the supermarket's own admission, business struggled in recent years which isn't surprising given the depths of the nation's recession and its impacts on local governments and businesses."

Earlier this year, Santoni also complained about a City Council proposal to impose a 10-cent fee on every plastic and paper bag distributed by merchants in the city. Santoni argued that the fees would hurt low-income shoppers as well as stores already reeling from the beverage tax increase.

"They're breaking our backs," Santoni said. "They live in a fantasy world down at City Hall."

In April, Santoni joined in a city effort to provide healthy food choices to low-income residents who live in so-called "food deserts." His store launched a 13-seat shuttle to provide free rides to and from the supermarket, an action hailed by the city health department.

In 2010, Santoni's, which had established a web site for online grocery orders, joined the city's Virtual Supermarket Project. Baltimoreans with limited shopping choices were able to order groceries from Santoni's online at either the Orleans Street or Washington Village branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and pick them up the next day — free of a delivery charge.

"Santoni's hopes to find a local buyer for its store," the press release said. "However, a few local prospects are reluctant to buy another store in the city."

Santoni's Marketplace and Catering in Glyndon is a separate company, and is not closing.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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