The Ben & Jerry's ice cream store at the Inner Harbor, a 5-year-old experiment in mixing social work with profits, is being evicted because it failed to pay rent for more than 18 months.
The shop will close this weekend, eliminating jobs for 15 workers, including eight mentally ill clients of People Encouraging People Inc., said Dale Meyer, president of the Baltimore-based nonprofit agency that owns and operates the franchise.
"This is a tremendous blow," Ms. Meyer said. "What made us unique was our job training and small business development" to help the mentally ill rejoin the world of work, and to persuade employers that mentally ill people could be good employees, she said.
Although the 14-year-old agency has tried other businesses, including a used clothing store and a printer cartridge remanufacturing operation, the ice cream shop was many workers' favorite.
"I think people make people well. . . . I like seeing the smiles on children's faces when they get a cone," said Carroll Price, a morning shift worker.
The eviction could also be a setback to Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., the Waterbury, Vt.-based ice cream maker that prides itself on doing well by doing good, said company spokesman Alan Parker.
The Inner Harbor store is one of five "partnershops," in which Ben & Jerry's has forgiven the standard $25,000 franchise fee to help a nonprofit agency start up a shop, he said.
The company is helping People Encouraging People look for another location, Mr. Parker said. But if the organization doesn't secure one, the business will close permanently. It would be the first failure associated with Ben & Jerry's special program.
People Encouraging People is being evicted by the new owners of what used to be known as Harrison's Pier 5, a hotel and restaurant complex at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Pratt Street.
Developer Otis Warren Jr., head of the five-member partnership that bought the troubled facility from the city for $5.5 million last .. month, said he has supported People Encouraging People and similar charities for years. But he said he is running a for-profit business, and needs a rent-paying tenant in the 1,100-square-foot shop.
People Encouraging People officials say they aren't technically in default because the city, which took over the troubled $13 million hotel and restaurant project in early 1994, has forgiven all of its past due rent bill -- more than $13,000.
They said they couldn't afford to pay the rent because construction on the Columbus Center next door made it hard for tourists to find the shop.
Ice cream sales fell from a slightly profitable level of about $360,000 a year before the construction started in 1993 to a money-losing $160,000 in the fiscal year that ended last month, said Gil Shifflett, controller of People Encouraging People.
Even if the organization finds another location to restart the shop, the eviction will hurt because the charity will lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of improvements -- such as sinks and air conditioners -- it made to the shop inside the hotel at Pier 5, Ms. Meyer said.
People Encouraging People hopes to find an investor or donor willing to help the organization pay back the $90,000 balance remaining on a Small Business Administration start-up loan, she said.