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Where Can a Rubber Tree Grow?


You wouldn't think that a proposal to open a condom store in Fells Point would have anything in common with a plan to build a Wal-Mart, that bastion of family values and patriotism, outside the town of Bel Air, but it does.

In both instances, nearby merchants fear the proposals to death. And both plans point up the distinct disadvantage that retail districts have in competing with the shopping malls, which can control their mix of shops to so great an extent.

A condom shop wouldn't necessarily be an egregious affront. The woman who wants to set one up in Fells Point has coined a playful title for the operation: "The Rubber Tree." Jeanne Brown says the shop will sell a variety of condoms, risque greeting cards, some gag gifts, but nothing pornographic or obscene. Still, eight nearby merchants, who run such businesses as a brass home furnishings shop and a bed and breakfast, have appealed The Rubber Tree's occupancy permit. They feel the shop would bruise the face of their funky, historic, waterfront shopping district.

Like Annapolis and Georgetown, Fells Point struggles to balance its role as quaint shopping area for an older audience and boisterous nightspot for a younger crowd. Fells Point merchants don't feel that visitors disembarking from water taxis should be greeted by a prophylactic emporium. The shop owner may indeed have a legal right to open -- that's something the city is still to determine -- but that doesn't mean it does Fells Point any good.

Business and political leaders 30 miles north in Bel Air feel the same way about Wal-Mart, the giant discounter, which has site plan approval for parcels on U.S. 40 in Aberdeen and off Interstate 95, south of Bel Air. The business establishment feels a Wal-Mart would be well-suited for Pulaski Highway in Aberdeen, but would wreak havoc on the shopping district trying to blossom in quaint Bel Air. The merchants aren't saying a Wal-Mart doesn't have a right to come into their community; in the proper location, it's welcome. They're terrified such a store could wreck the fragile physiology of their small business district, as Wal-Marts have in so many other small towns across the country.

Even more so than acres of free parking and climate control, this is the powerful advantage the malls have over the business districts. They control who can sell what, when and where. The fates of the Fells Points or the Bel Airs lie much more with the motivations, self-interests and freedoms of the individual property owners.

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