With a full grocery bag dangling from each hand, Tommy Warren makes his way down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, walking past a vacant lot where the Lexington Terrace housing projects once stood -- a place where the crime rate was as high as the buildings were tall.
"I've lived around here for seven years and I've come the same way every time I need to get something from the store up the street, but I sure will be glad when they finish this," Warren said, pointing through the chain-link fence to the future site of the Parren J. Mitchell Business Center.
For Warren, 46, and others in the impoverished Poppleton neighborhood just west of downtown, the prospect of a new business in the neighborhood represents hope.
Developers began yesterday the first phase of construction of an $85 million complex on the northwest corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and West Saratoga Street. The center's largest tenant will be Rite Aid, which will occupy 11,000 square feet with a full-line drugstore including a drive-through pharmacy.
However, most of the people who will benefit from the store don't drive, and the proximity of the business will be a plus for people such as Warren.
"Like I said, I always come this way anyway so it will be that much easier for me if I need to pick up medicine or if I have a headache and don't feel like walking a long distance, it will be right here," he said.
A 41,000-square-foot, three-story office building, which will house housing authority police station and headquarters for Enterprise Social Investment Corp., formerly of Columbia, will stand adjacent to the Rite Aid store.
The center is named after former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Democrat who served eight terms in Congress from the 7th district.
"It's special to me because it's being built in the memory of Parren," said Doris Hall, a spokeswoman for the newly formed Poppleton Village Community Development Corp. "He meant a lot to people around here, and it's important that his legacy be carried on."
The best part about this venture is that members of the community will eventually get a chance to own a piece of the property, as part of a deal forged by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, NationsBank Corp. and Poppleton Village CDC, Hall said.
"This is really our first attempt to do our part in the business community and it's great because the people who buy there can also some day own a piece of it," she said.
After NationsBank recoups its initial $500,000 investment, its share of the property will be sold to the Poppleton Village CDC for $1. The housing authority will retain its 55 percent interest in the property.
NationsBank also provided $5.3 million in construction and permanent financing for the project.
Maria E. Johnson, a NationsBank vice president who is leading the project, said the bank could sell its stake within eight years.
"It could happen sooner than that," she said. "We're just trying to break even, not make a cash on the upside out of this. It's not just an investment in this particular area, it's a big investment for the city as a whole."
Johnson added that she hopes the new center will help expand Baltimore's business district across Martin Luther King Boulevard.
But even with all the hoopla surrounding the project, Patricia Wallace, 49, who lives in the area, is concerned about what she called Rite Aid's high prices.
"People down this way might not be able to afford the prices at first," Wallace said.
But Wallace said she realizes the potential for growth, which will stem from community investment.
"On the positive side though, this is something black people JTC need to start doing -- investing -- not just in this neighborhood, but on a larger scale too," she said. "Blacks should own a part of their own neighborhood, and if Rite Aid brings its prices down a bit, it'll be even better."
Hall said the creation of jobs and the generation of community dollars will help offset the cost of some of the more expensive items and services Rite Aid offers.
"Originally, residents wanted a grocery store, but space wouldn't allow that type of project," she said. "High prices are an issue everywhere. What's important is that we have development in this virtually undeveloped area, and this store is still closer than anything downtown."
By the time the project is finished late next year, the housing authority will have completed 203 housing units and a 23,000-square-foot recreation center, flanking the business center.
Residents such as Renee Mitchell said these new neighborhood empowerment initiatives will help the area grow in a positive way, while providing convenient shopping.
"I was shocked when I saw the sign for the Rite Aid," said Mitchell, 25. "It's a good thing for me especially because when I come to this area to visit my aunt, I don't have to worry about going all the way downtown for something."
Things won't change much for Tommy Warren, who has seen businesses come and go in the area.
He said he'll continue to walk and shop in the same manner.
"But," he said, "at least I have more options now."
Pub Date: 6/23/98