BUSINESSES CATCH BASEBALL FEVER Downtown prepares for ballpark crowds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It takes 970 steps for a 5-foot-6-inch woman to get from Oriole Park at Camden Yards to Harborplace.

The marketplace's managers know that because they sent Michelle Wright, a staff member, out last Monday to pace it off. It was an easy 12-minute stroll, she said, though passers-by did look at her funny as she walked along Pratt Street watching her feet and counting to herself.

At Harborplace and all around the stadium, merchants, innkeepers and restaurateurs are expecting to count a lot more than footsteps this year as some 3 million new pilgrims, with wallets bulging, pour into downtown to pay homage to the

baseball gods. As Opening Day approaches, everyone from the National Museum of Ceramic Art to Mrs. Myra the psychic reader can feel the excitement building.

Forget 1991. Forget the recession. This is going to be their year. Spring training has yet to begin, but all around the $105 million ballpark, baseball-happy capitalists are dreaming up promotions, renovating facilities, expanding floor space, extending hours and planning new hiring. On 22 percent of the dates in the year, there's going to be downtown baseball in Baltimore.

At Pickles Pub, across Washington Boulevard from the stadium, the opening will help cleanse the sullied reputations of several women who have been scurrilously libeled in the mens' room graffiti. Co-owner Vince Poist plans to paint over the scribblings as part of "a major bathroom renovation" before the Orioles return from Florida for an April 3 exhibition game.

Pickles, so close to the left field wall that Jose Canseco could probably hit the front door on one bounce if the Orioles' pitching hasn't improved, is one of the most obvious beneficiaries of the new stadium. Mr. Poist said he expects his business to triple this year as the "big risk" he and his brother took four years ago finally pays off.

"We've been struggling through waiting for the stadium," he said. Now he plans to expand and spruce up the tavern and to double his staff to about 15. He'll need every bit of new business he can get, however, because property values have soared along with his expectations. "My [tax] assessment this year is amazing," he said.

A similar scenario is being played out at bars and restaurants all around the stadium.

Up the block from Pickles, closer to center field, Michael Taylor and his partners at Sliders Bar & Grill are refinishing the 1950s-era bar, adding sports memorabilia and video screens and hoping to snag a seven-day liquor license to replace his six-day ++ permit.

They've been losing money -- especially since they closed for renovations -- but once they get a sports team to go with their sports theme, they expect to do a booming business, pumped up by frequent promotions.

Two blocks away, on Pratt Street, John and Mike Stakias have added a bright new room -- in the blue-and-white colors of the Greek flag -- to the Penn Restaurant and Carry-Out. They plan to extend their nighttime hours and open Sundays to catch hungry fans in search of an inexpensive plate of moussaka after a game. Down the street, the Campus Inn is putting in a new kitchen. Over at Harborplace, Hooters has hired about 30 more women to handle an expected 15 percent to 20 percent increase over last year's business.

For a downtown restaurant business that could charitably be described as moribund in 1991, the crack of bat on ball could be the sound of salvation.

"I think it makes all the difference in the world," said Paul Reamer, owner of P. J. Cricketts at 206 W. Pratt St. "In the past, for those of us who were not in the harbor, summer was a very, very slow time."

It's not just restaurants and bars that expect the stadium to bring new business. Saundra Mendelson, whose Maish's Auto Service lies virtually at the stadium's front doorstep, expects to extend her hours on game days and maybe hire an extra hand or two to accommodate those unlucky drivers whose cars don't start after the last out.

The 1960s-style gas station and repair shop, with its two non-digital gas pumps and 4:30 p.m. closing time, has been at its location at Pratt and Paca streets for some 20 years -- long before a new downtown stadium was even a gleam in William Donald Schaefer's eye. Now the tiny Citgo outlet, quaint but hardly scenic, is at one of the most visible corners in town, and Mrs. Mendelson isn't quite sure about the future.

"As far as I know, we'll be staying in business," she said. "It's up to the powers that be. I'm not those powers."

Even as high-brow an operation as the National Museum of Ceramic Arts, facing the front of the stadium from 250 W. Pratt St., sees opportunity in the stadium's debut. Manager Charles Pugh said the museum, now open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is thinking of extending its hours to lure in some pre-game visitors and has asked the Orioles whether the museum's gift shop could stock some items with the Orioles logo.

Whether the answer is yes or no, Mr. Pugh is thrilled at the increased exposure the museum will be getting. If he can persuade the landlord to allow it, he'll have a banner out front when the season opens April 6. If he can't, well, at least "it's very easy now to explain where our location is."

Even Mrs. Myra, who tells fortunes at 2 E. Lombard Street, sees great things in her future. Hoping for a 50 percent to 75 percent jump in business, she's planning to extend her hours to reach downtown fans who want to learn the score on the way to the ballpark, and she'll be offering them special rates. "It's going to bring a lot more popularity to downtown," she said.

For downtown hotels, Oriole Park is expected to bring triple benefits. Their food-and-beverage operations are obvious winners, but ballgames are also expected to bring modest gains in room occupancy and parking revenues. Alexander Iannacone, general manager of the Marriott Inner Harbor, said Saturdays are already booked up and he doesn't expect much additional midweek trade, but he thinks the ballgames could fill more rooms on Friday nights.

In keeping with its low-step count from Camden Yards, Harborplace is also expecting a big boost when the stadium opens its doors for an exhibition game April 3.

According to Kate Delano, a Harborplace spokeswoman, 18.5 percent of Orioles fans are expected to come from outside the Baltimore metropolitan area. "We feel a lot of those people will come early and stay late," she said.

To make sure Harborplace captures its share of those people, the Rouse Co. managers and marketplace merchants are planning an aggressive round of baseball-related promotions, Ms. Delano said. She said she expects to see pre-game and post-game entertainment, picnic packs to take to the ballgame and other Harborplace contributions to the hoopla.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for everyone downtown," she said.

Actually, there is some question how far those opportunities will extend. In two directions, the stadium's impact will be blunted by geographical reality. To the south, only Hammerjack's nightclub and the string of gas stations along the west side of Russell Street stand to benefit. To the west, business is hemmed in by the residential neighborhood of Ridgely's Delight and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

To the southeast, pedestrian traffic is blocked by Interstate 395 and residential neighborhoods, but some of the restaurant and tavern owners in the Cross Street Market area believe they can grab a chunk of new business. Hugh Sisson, owner of Sisson's, said he and some other restaurant owners plan to pitch in to

provide trolley transportation to and from the stadium.

On the east side, some new businesses will take up position in the stadium complex itself as the former B&O; Warehouse is restored. Among those planned are a cafeteria, a souvenir shop and a sports bar called Bambino's, commemorating the site of the tavern owned by Babe Ruth's father.

The biggest beneficiaries among existing businesses, besides the bars across Washington Boulevard, are likely to be the businesses along Pratt Street, including P. J. Cricketts, the sports bar called Balls and a restaurant to be named later that is expected to occupy the ground floor of the restored 1871 part of the Marsh & McLennan Building.

With the stadium opening, what was once a so-so location could become a prime destination for pre-game and post-game diners. "If you work in the IBM Building and you're parked there, you're not going to move your car, are you? You're going to walk right in front of us," P. J. Cricketts' Mr. Reamer said.

The wave of new business is expected to roll eastward down Pratt and Conway streets as far as Harborplace and the Gallery, but past there it could very well fade to a ripple.

In Little Italy, Sabatino's owner, Vince Culotta, said that having the stadium closer will probably have "a positive effect on our business," but he doesn't expect any dramatic increases in the crowds his restaurant already drew from Memorial Stadium. He's not planning any special promotions to draw Oriole Park fans. The neighborhood's severe parking problem will likely keep Little Italy restaurateurs from offering a shuttle service to the stadium, he said.

To the north, there's a lot of potential for cashing in on game crowds, but for now, at least, there's not much reason to head that way.

The University of Maryland at Baltimore, occupying some of the blocks closest to the stadium, blocks development in one direction. And Lombard Street, with its dark stretches and rundown appearance, is less than inviting to pedestrians. Where Pratt Street glitters with new development, one of Lombard's most visible landmarks is the Club Tic-Toc ("Girls Girls Girls").

"I don't think there's much there to benefit," said Dan Stone, president of Stone & Associates Inc., which developed the Marsh & McLennan Building. "I think Pratt Street will be the primary focus."

City officials are aware of the shortcomings of the Lombard Street corridor, but they're convinced the stadium will be a catalyst for new development in that area. "I think the area will begin to fill in between the stadium and the University Center," said Susan Eliasberg, vice president for marketing for Baltimore Development Corp.

Of course, there are some enterprises that have the perfect location but the wrong line of business to take advantage of the ballpark.

Holding down one of the primest of the prime stadium-area locations, directly across Washington Boulevard midway between Pickles and Sliders, is the Grinding Company of America, which has sharpened Baltimore-area restaurants' knives at that location for 15 years.

Bill Seibel, who runs the company for his retired father, said that "we're not in any hurry to get out of here," even though he knows that now his location might be more suited to selling grinders than grinding blades.

While his company has received a few feelers from real estate agents, nobody has yet offered a price that would repay the cost of moving, he said. He'd sell for the right price, but so far, he said, "It seems like the people who want it really haven't been serious about it."

Just across from the ball yard at 300 Russell St., the law firm of Butschky & Ehlers is in a similar position. The firm's current home, the ornate former Metropolitan Life building, seems to cry out for conversion to a restaurant or bar.

Attorney Roger Butschky said that having thousands more people see his nameplate will be a plus, but he doesn't really expect to get a lot of new work that way. "Most of our business comes from personal referrals," he said.

Mr. Butschky said the firm is happy in its present quarters, but he allowed that property tax assessments are getting pretty steep and, yes, he would consider the right offer. So far, he said, there have been feelers, but no bona fide offers.

So when the man behind the mask yells "Play ball!" this April, the law firm of Butschky & Ehlers will still be there, rocking with the roar of the crowd. But Mr. Butschky, a season ticket holder, won't be at work. He'll be across the street.

8, "As a baseball fan, I love it," he said.

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