At Ace Hardware in Waverly, customers have been Johns Hopkins University students who need paint to touch up a room or Greenmount Avenue rehabbers who need to replace a broken drill. Since he opened the store in May, co-owner John Elliott has come to know many of the neighborhood residents who stop in to buy light switches or batteries or get a screen repaired.
Elliott said Thursday he expects to hang onto those customers, despite the price competition that's sure to come if a large Lowe's home improvement store opens nearby. The first Lowe's in Baltimore City is proposed as part of a developer's $65 million plan for a site straddling Charles Village and Remington.
Despite worries over what would be a major rival, Elliott and other small business owners said they believe "Mom and Pop" stores can co-exist with the big-box retailers because each has its own niche.
"When someone comes to our store, we greet them at the door and take care of their needs," Elliott said. "That's our edge. We're the home-upkeep store. [Lowe's] might be the remodel store, but people come here for day-to-day needs."
He added that while he's glad to hear about new investment in the city, "Do I want a Lowe's there? No. Am I terrified of it? No. People will still find us."
Plans for a Lowe's were unveiled Wednesday evening by a Detroit-based retail developer also proposing a supermarket, apartments and additional specialty shops in a $65 million mixed-use project.
Developer Rick Walker, chief executive officer of Walker Developments Inc., would build at the site of the 54-year-old Anderson Automotive business on the western edge of Charles Village into neighboring Remington. The 11 acres are roughly bounded by 25th Street to the north, Maryland Avenue to the east, 24th Street to the south and the CSX rail line to the west.
Walker has a contract to buy most of the site from the owner of Anderson Automotive, one of the 1,100 dealerships whose franchises won't be renewed next year by General Motors Co. as part of the automaker's bankruptcy. The dealership's second-generation owner, Bruce Mortimer, said he plans to keep operating his Anderson body shop business in Charles Village and will move his Honda car sales to Baltimore County.
Walker, chief executive of Walker Developments Inc., told city elected officials and community leaders in a meeting Wednesday that he has preliminary approval on the plan from Lowe's and interest from lenders in financing the project. The project would get under way next fall and open in 2011.
Lowe's, which has 25 stores in Maryland and about 10 in the Baltimore region, is also planning a 94,000-square-foot store on Taylor Avenue in Parkville, slated to open late next year. A spokeswoman for the retailer said the home improvement chain looks at population, homeownership and ease of access when evaluating new sites.
The spokeswoman, Maureen Rich, said Lowe's has slowed the pace of its development, but "we plan for the long term, and we see potential for growth in the Towson market." She would not comment about plans for Baltimore, citing company policy against commenting on specific sites until after buying land. And "we have not done that in Baltimore," Rich said.
The prospect of a Charles Village/Remington store caused some concern to the owners of Belle Hardware, a neighborhood store in Bolton Hill for more than 30 years.
"The big boxes have come in and have wiped out small store owners," said Janice Mcculley, one of the owners. "There are very few hardware stores left in the city. I would hate to see us go out of business because of Lowe's, but I hope that our customers remain loyal."
Mickey Fried, also an owner, said he hopes customers will recognize the unique service they can get from shops like his.
"Lowe's and Home Depot will help you replace anything in your home, but they cannot help you fix anything you already have," Fried said. "Baltimore is a good, old city. When you go into the home centers, what they have is what they'll tell you you need. We see people from our neighborhood, and we try to fill the store with what they need."
John McIlwain, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, said that while conventional thinking goes that the big-box stores always push out the independent shops, that's not always the case.
For the Charles Village and Remington neighborhoods, "there are definitely pluses and minuses. It's great to have that site occupied instead of vacant, particularly at a time like this. It is good for the city's tax base."
When a typically suburban retailer goes into an urban area, "they're not just for the local community. They would draw from a five-mile radius and look at the retail dollars within that radius. They figure this is an easily accessible spot for people outside the community," McIlwain said.
Local hardware stores that draw customers from their neighborhoods can often co-exist with larger competitors, depending on proximity of the stores and the quality of service.
"It's a very different business, and they do co-exist," McIlwain said. "I don't think it's clear-cut one way or the other."