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City seeks a jolt from Starbucks

In the history of coffee, Baltimore holds some claim to fame.

The London Coffee House in Fells Point is the last surviving coffeehouse that predates the American Revolution. Much of the Brazilian coffee that came to the United States in the late 1800s landed at the city's wharves. And an H.C. Lockwood of Baltimore received a patent in 1873 for a paper coffee package lined with tin foil - credited as the start of modern coffee packaging.

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So why is Baltimore the city Starbucks forgot?

Many people in Baltimore lament that the city has relatively few of the Seattle company's coffeehouses. Among them is Mayor Martin O'Malley, who pressed Starbucks officials at the retail industry's big convention in Las Vegas recently to increase their presence in Baltimore.

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Like power suits and Palm Pilots, Starbucks has become synonymous with urban chic among its fans. (Critics call it a symbol of cookie-cutter commercialism and deride the costly brew as "Four Bucks," but that's a different story.)

"In Chicago, they're on every corner, but here you have to search for one," said Young Son, an accountant from Cockeysville who works in Baltimore. "We need more."

She and the mayor might get their wish.

Starbucks plans to open a new store in Baltimore by the end of the year and plans several more in 2005, said Alan Hilowitz, a regional spokesman.

Baltimore has about a half-dozen Starbucks sites now, but most are in tourist areas such as Harborplace. There are a few small counter operations inside other stores, such as at the Safeway supermarket in Canton. The only large free-standing store is in the Mount Washington Mill shopping center beside Whole Foods Market, near the city's northern border.

New upscale developments such as Harbor East, growing with new waterfront condos, hotels and restaurants, have made the city more attractive for additional locations, said John Hricko, the Starbucks development manager O'Malley cornered in Las Vegas.

"We're very interested in being in Baltimore," Hricko said. "We just want to make sure it's the right opportunity."

It apparently hasn't been for a while. Baltimore, with about 638,600 residents, has few Starbucks sites compared with other cities, large and small.

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Minneapolis, a city of about 375,600, has 15 within a five-mile radius of downtown. Austin, the Texas capital and home to Dell Computer and other tech companies, has 14. Charlotte, N.C., banking capital of the New South, has 11. Burgeoning Atlanta, population 425,000, has 11. Richmond, the Virginia state capital with one-third Baltimore's population, has three. Down the parkway, Washington might still lack baseball, but it has 44 Starbucks locations.

That it takes a Starbucks to raise a village's self-image might seem silly, but cities perceived as blue-collar or industrial don't have many of them. Detroit and Cleveland, for example, have fewer than 10 each.

Some experts say that landing a Starbucks brings a city more than style points: It is a barometer of urban revival. The company has been famously selective in choosing sites. It typically seeks areas with a high number of commuters in which to plant its green mermaid logo. The stores often become communal gathering spots, a place for people to read the newspaper.

"From an economic development point of view, we definitely want them. I think they are a harbinger that attracts other retailers," said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., who accompanied the city's group in Las Vegas.

"Little things like grocery stores and Starbucks all add up to improve the quality of life for residents and attract more residents," said Raquel Guillory, the mayor's spokeswoman.

City officials said they would welcome other coffeehouses too, beyond local chains such as Donna's Coffee Bars & Restaurant that already do well. Caribou Coffee, a Minneapolis company with more than 200 stores in Maryland and several other states, has expressed interest in Baltimore, city officials said.

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Baltimore wasn't alone in wooing Starbucks at the Las Vegas retail convention. The company's booth was continuously abuzz with developers and brokers; the line for its drink samples was one of the longest in the cavernous exhibit hall.

"A Starbucks presence is a positive indicator for a city that there is a strong market," said Sharon M. Polonia, senior vice president of asset management for General Growth Properties Inc., the country's second-largest shopping center real estate investment trust.

It might not be quite the measure of economic well-being it once was. The company, which opened its first location in the Pike's Place Market in Seattle in 1971, has become more liberal in scouting new markets.

Orin Smith, Starbucks president and chief executive officer, said this year that he wants to double the company's locations, now 7,569 worldwide, during the next five years.

The chain made headlines last year when it opened its first store in West Virginia, establishing its presence in all 50 states.

"At the end of the day, Starbucks isn't about selling coffee. It's about selling a lifestyle," said Sharon Zackfia, an analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago. "You have to go to where there are high concentrations of people and high tourism to get that initial exposure. At first they were going after a yuppie clientele, but now they attract just about everyone."

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Even a potential competitor said he didn't mind the city courting Starbucks.

"When we're near Starbucks, we're leveraging the power of their national brand by being there," said Alan Hirsch, co-owner of Donna's with Donna Crivello. "Everything they do is expanding the consciousness of what a superior cup of coffee is."


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