Pugh's war on corner stores

Mayor Catherine Pugh raised a lot of eyebrows around town when she targeted businesses for criticism during a West Baltimore photo-op on Tuesday. While touring the area around the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues with an entourage of police, city officials and reporters, she insisted to the cashier of one corner store that he should close at 9 p.m. rather than 11:30 at night. At another, she called for the Health Department to move up its next inspection date. She told the owner of another that he needed new rugs and called his store a “hell hole.”

This wasn’t random. Mayor Pugh has been talking a lot lately about the profusion of corner stores in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods, arguing that they add little to the community and are magnets for crime and drug dealing — and in some cases, facilitate it. We can’t say whether the particular businesses Ms. Pugh visited Tuesday have caused any problems, but public health research suggests that, at least in the aggregate, she has a point.

In 2016, C. Debra Furr-Holden, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published a paper along with other researchers at Hopkins and Wayne State University in Detroit seeking to determine whether drug treatment centers are associated with increased crime. They looked specifically at data from Baltimore, and for comparison’s sake, they contrasted crime rates near those facilities with those around few other types of business — specifically, liquor stores, convenience stores and precisely the kind of corner stores Ms. Pugh is talking about. The researchers controlled for the level of disadvantage in a particular neighborhood, and they used spatial analysis tools to measure the prevalence of violent crime around each type of business.

What they found is that violent crime clustered around corner stores at very nearly the same rate that it did around liquor stores and substantially more than it did around drug treatment centers or convenience stores (defined as chain stores of the 7-Eleven or Royal Farms ilk). A wide body of previous research had made the connection between the over-concentration of liquor stores and violent crime, and Baltimore used that as the basis for policy changes to limit such outlets through a re-write of the zoning code. There is a case to be made that the city should start focusing on corner stores, too.

Ms. Pugh’s remark about the business’ hours wasn’t random, either. Pursuant to the city’s charter and code, Baltimore requires a license for businesses to operate between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. in residential and certain commercial zones. The law requires the city to deny a license if at least 10 property owners who are not themselves holders of late night commercial licenses object (though such a denial is subject to appeal) and allows the city to deny a license if the owner presents an inadequate security plan or is unable or unwilling “to accept reasonable conditions on the license to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.”

Those conditions may well be necessary. In 2016, when the City Council considered a bill to extend the restrictions to B-3 business zones, the police department wrote that late-night businesses “are often associated with various types of illegal activity, including narcotics dealing, prostitution, general disorderly conduct, and in some cases, violent crime.”

Ms. Pugh has questioned whether the city has really applied much scrutiny to late-night permit applications from corner stores in the past. Indeed, the Finance Department is probably not ideally suited to handle the matter; the police and/or health departments have much greater expertise. Mayor Pugh should consider moving the authority to review late-night permits to one or both of those departments.

Regulating businesses out of existence is not something Baltimore should do lightly. We need more people willing to invest their money and effort in this city, not fewer. But just as with the debate about liquor stores during the Rawlings-Blake administration, we can’t ignore the cumulative effect of past lax policies and regulations on community health and safety. As Mayor Pugh certainly knows, she can’t address this issue by haranguing corner store owners one at a time. It requires a thoughtful, fair and comprehensive approach, and we urge her pursue it.

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