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Maisha McCoy, principal owner and pharmacist at Pharmacy Solutions in West Baltimore, stands in front of her store on North Carey Street. She will be able to spruce up the storefront with grants given to businesses after last year's riots.
Maisha McCoy, principal owner and pharmacist at Pharmacy Solutions in West Baltimore, stands in front of her store on North Carey Street. She will be able to spruce up the storefront with grants given to businesses after last year's riots. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Along a struggling stretch of North Carey Street, Maisha McCoy plans to add lighting, new awnings and possibly wrought-iron window guards to spruce up the front of her pharmacy.

She'll pay for it using money from a new state program designed to help Baltimore businesses damaged during last year's riots.

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McCoy passed medication to her patients through a cutout in the window grate in the weeks following the unrest, when her store in Harlem Park was repeatedly robbed and vandalized. She said the $10,000 grant would give the business a fresh look, blending her need for security with her desire to be a welcoming community anchor.

"I built this one customer at a time," said McCoy, who opened Pharmacy Solutions in 2013. "I came in and set up shop. I serviced all of the patients as best as I could. I have a mission here."

McCoy's is one of nearly 50 businesses affected by the unrest that will receive up to $10,000 each in storefront improvements, part of a $650,000 program by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The effort also includes on-the-job training for unemployed city residents and custom architectural designs.

Housing Secretary Kenneth C. Holt said the state is trying to strengthen neighborhoods by putting people to work and drawing customers to community centers, corner stores and retail shops. Businesses receiving aid include a barbershop in Park Heights, a social club in Penn North and a jewelry store in Highlandtown.

Thriving "main streets," Holt said, support successful businesses and, in turn, vibrant housing markets by attracting people to live, work and shop. The grant money will pay for new exterior paint and signs, carpentry work and entryway enhancements, such as new windows or doors.

"Any time you improve the appearance of an area — whether it's cleaning up litter or freshening up a storefront with new canopies — that creates a visual impression that is attractive, and brings people together, makes people proud of their community," Holt said.

Steven C. Isberg, an associate finance professor at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business, said investing in the exterior appearance of a business can increase its profits.

"Anyone is going to be more inclined to walk into a nice-looking store than a ratty-looking store," Isberg said.

He said it's important to monitor whether the grant helps create sustainable economic growth in a neighborhood. Income from local owners more directly filters back into a community, and as the businesses grow, the owners are likely to reinvest by hiring more residents, he said.

"It's a question of whether you're seeding economic growth in the area as opposed to window dressing," Isberg said.

Holt said the program is part of a broad approach to address troubled communities. He pointed to an accelerated demolition plan for Baltimore's abandoned houses that Gov. Larry Hogan announced in January.

Hogan sees the grant program as a support that will help "turn our economy around and change Baltimore, and Maryland, for the better," spokeswoman Hannah Marr said.

"These small-business owners and their employees and customers are knit into the fabric of our local communities and know better than anyone else what is needed to revitalize our neighborhoods and improve economic opportunities," Marr said in a statement.

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Some of the businesses affected by the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody also have received state support in the form of emergency loans to help restock inventory that might have been stolen or pay for emergency infrastructure repairs. McCoy's, for instance, received a $35,000 partially forgivable loan from the state.

The city runs a similar facade improvement program through the Baltimore Development Corp. More than $3.5 million was awarded for storefront improvements from 2000 to 2014, the last year for which data are available.

Baltimore's quasi-public development arm also offered storefront recovery grants of up to $5,000 after the unrest. In all, the group awarded 73 of the grants, valued at more than $210,000.

Projects funded by the new state program include businesses in neighborhoods from Park Heights and Pigtown to Highlandtown and Waverly. Other areas include the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, Fells Point and the downtown business district. Three in four of the businesses are in areas with concentrated damage, according to the state agency.

Holt said one factor in considering which businesses would receive the grants was selecting multiple storefronts on the same block.

"A lot of the storefronts need a good bit of help," Holt said. "We did not want to go into an area with significant decay and vacancy and improve one unit without a longer-term plan for the area."

About 150 businesses applied for the grants, Holt said. He expects to continue the program in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July.

The state might match the value of exterior improvements by business owners, depending on how much additional money the owners have to invest, he said. The state did not set a deadline by which the work must be complete.

Of the program's $650,000, about $500,000 will go toward paying for the construction. About $100,000 is going to Civic Works and Living Classrooms Foundation to pay the workers and offer training and certifications. The rest is going toward architectural plans for grant recipients.

No estimate on the number of jobs to be created was available; the number will depend on the scope of the various projects.

James Knight, 22, who lives and grew up in East Baltimore, is one of the people who will be hired.

"It an opportunity of a lifetime for someone like me, from where I come from," said Knight, who was accepted into Civic Works' YouthBuild program that provides young adults with on-the-job training and construction trade certifications.

Dion Wright, deputy director of Civic Works, said the trainees will spend part of their time on the job sites and the other part in the classroom.

In addition to learning how to install windows, fix porch roofs and master other skills, the trainees will get a chance to practice reading blueprints and become more familiar with safety standards, he said.

"We're getting out there on main streets doing the work," Wright said.

Neighborhood Design Center was awarded $50,000 to work with the businesses to develop architectural plans. Its director, Jennifer Goold, said the architects and designers will tailor plans based on the historic character of the different neighborhoods, the utility of the business and the owners' wishes.

Goold said working on the projects can help connect Baltimore to its past prosperity and support businesses that have remained committed to the city, despite the challenges of the last year.

"So many of these small storefronts are left from a time when small business was the way of life for Americans," Goold said. "It's still a very special way of supporting a local economy. When we support these businesses, resources stay in the Baltimore ecosystem, and we support our family and neighbors."

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McCoy said she envisions a lobby where customers can get flu shots, watch informational segments on diabetes treatment and drink a cup of coffee.

She also is working with the city to find ways to renovate the abandoned houses across the street from her shop, and will soon begin renting the newly refurbished apartments on the pharmacy's second floor.

"When the riot took place, I didn't want to come back," McCoy said. "But my patients started calling me. They were crying, 'We need our meds.' There is a connection I have with this community."

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