Baltimore merchants push back against Mayor Pugh's claim that corner stores are crime hubs

Owners of the mini-markets that dot Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods pushed back Wednesday against Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s criticism that they attract crime.

Pugh repeated her criticism of the stores during a walking tour of Penn North this week. Her claims are backed by some community leaders, who associate the businesses with drug dealing.

Store owners defended themselves on Wednesday, and said the mayor risked driving taxpaying businesses out of struggling neighborhoods and depriving poor consumers of options.

Dhrumil Patel’s family owns the Shop N Go convenience store in Pigtown, among other businesses. He said reducing the number of the stores, as the mayor has proposed, would limit competition and drive up prices for the city’s poorest residents.

“As far as the stores are concerned, their job is to serve people in the community,” Patel said. “They can't look at whether you're a drug dealer or a lawyer or a judge or work in a hospital. The job of a convenience store is convenience.”

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said stores that are proved to be involved in crimes should be held accountable under existing laws. She said Pugh was relying on an “extraordinary amount of assumptions” by saying the businesses are causing criminal activity.

“These convenience stores are some of the only places people may have to go to grab something within a mile of their home,” Tolle said. “I don’t know that we should be trying to discourage them from remaining in communities.”

The city is home to more than 600 of the small food stores, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University. The quality of the food they sell varies widely, but in a city where almost a quarter of people live in food deserts — areas where residents are poor, live far from a supermarket and typically lack cars — they give residents an option close to home to pick something up on a weeknight.

Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said the department has renewed its focus on businesses since commanders in the Northern District discovered that 60 percent of violent crimes there were occurring at or near just seven or eight local businesses.

The Northern District redeployed officers to spend time at the problem businesses to talk with owners, customers and people they believe are up to no good.

De Sousa told The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board Wednesday that the link between business and crime has emerged as a major focus of the city’s multi-agency Violence Reduction Initiative.

Pugh repeated her concerns about the crime she says clusters around small markets that line commercial districts in the city’s poorest neighborhoods during her tour on Tuesday. She has said she wants to use city health inspectors, the finance department and the zoning board to subject them to more scrutiny.

Pugh told one Pennsylvania Avenue business owner that he should consider closing at 9 p.m. rather than 11:30 p.m. to keep crowds away.

Tolle questioned the wisdom of the mayor’s approach.

“I don’t know that walking into a retail business and telling them to close in a free market makes any sense,” she said.

Shortly after Pugh’s tour, health inspectors closed T & M Restaurant and Carryout on Pennsylvania Avenue. The health department cited “rodent infestation, improper food handling, unsanitary conditions, and repeat violations.”

The business owners could not be reached for comment.

T​he Rev. Keith Bailey, the president of the Fulton Heights Community Association, said there are far too many stores, and they attract drug dealers. Bailey said the city needs to take steps to “eliminate” the businesses.

“It’s all right for one or two,” he said. “But not a thousand of them.”

Alvesta Cooper, a neighborhood leader in Sandtown-Winchester, said the stores are known for “drug traffic. Plenty. A whole lot.”

Cooper said she wants to see more kinds of businesses in the neighborhood — a goal the mayor shares.

“You’ve got so many of them around here,” Cooper said. “They need to put something in the area that's worthy of being in the area, like a supermarket.”

Mario Chang, the owner of Gera Variety Store, a liquor store near Mondawmin Mall, said he understands some of the concerns. But he said it’s wrong to portray all businesses in the same negative light.

“We have drugs, we have crime, those things aren’t going anywhere,” Chang said. “Just because you close a business, it’s not a solution. I understand where the community comes from with their thoughts, but it’s a lot of band aids to the real problem.”

Chang said he’s been trying to attend meetings in his community and get to know more people — something he said is easier for second-generation owners like himself, who don’t face any language barriers.

“What I've been coming to realize is if there’s a strong relationship that can be built around the community and the business, that can go a long way,” he said.

Pugh spoke of the stores at a meeting with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board this month.

“The question should be for us when trying to make a community safe, what do mini-markets really represent on Pennsylvania Avenue? Are these places that harbor drug dealers?” she asked. “Because you go inside some of them and there are three of four people standing in the store all the time.”

Pugh asked what value the stores bring to their neighborhoods.

“If you have one mini-market on the block, is there a need for three?” she asked. “What are they selling, Fritos and soda? What impact is that having on the community?”

Caitlin Misiaszek, a program officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, worked with city agencies to survey residents’ access to food. She said the stores typically aren’t enough to lift a community out of food desert status.

But that’s not always the case. Closing the stores could hurt the people who rely on them, Misiaszek said, but there could be opportunities to work with the stores and the communities they’re in to encourage them to offer a wider range of healthy foods.

“They’re not all carrying just processed and snack foods,” she said. “Some do have healthy foods and fresh options as well.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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