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City shouldn't support non-conforming liquor stores

Baltimore shouldn't help owners of the city's nonconforming liquor stores recover from the riots.

Residents of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods have long complained that their communities are saturated with small liquor stores that make them magnets for crime and blight. Many of the stores are located in areas where current city zoning laws would not normally allow them to operate, yet they remain open because their liquor licenses were granted before the code was changed four decades ago. City officials have been trying for years to encourage the owners of these so-called nonconforming liquor stores to either offer a different type of merchandise or move their businesses to other parts of the city. But until now few store owners have taken them up on the offer.

That's why Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was right to announce this week that the owners of 23 nonconforming liquor stores damaged during the riots following Freddie Gray's funeral in April won't get any help from the city to rebuild on their present sites unless they change their businesses. Nearly 400 businesses sustained riot damage that makes them eligible for interest-free loans of up to $35,000 under a city recovery program. By declining to include the nonconforming stores in that effort, the city is wisely refusing to allocate limited resources in a way that would contradict a long-standing and sensible policy choice.

Closing the nonconforming liquor stores in poor neighborhoods has been high on the city's list of priorities ever since a proposed overhaul of Baltimore's zoning code, known as Transform Baltimore, was introduced in 2013. A Hopkins study released that same year found that the high density of liquor stores in distressed urban neighborhoods was directly related to higher rates of violent crime, homicide, alcohol and drug abuse as well as all manner of nuisance offenses that directly impacted the quality of life in those areas. The overconcentration of liquor stores in poor communities also represented a serious public health risk because of its association with higher rates of serious chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes and shortened life expectancy.

The city has already tried gentle persuasion to nudge the liquor store owners toward altering their business models. And it has made it very clear that an owner who makes the switch from selling liquor and cigarettes to healthier fare such as fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and other groceries not only would be welcome to remain in their current locations but eligible for all the programs designed to help small businesses succeed. Many of the nonconforming stores are in neighborhoods designated by health experts as "food deserts," where most residents don't own a car and the nearest grocery store or supermarket is more than a quarter mile away. Converting the nonconforming liquor stores into shops selling the ingredients for healthy, nutritious meals would fill a real need in such communities.

Not every liquor store owner will have the experience, savvy or resources to embark on a new business venture on their present site. Some undoubtedly will choose to keep on selling alcohol and beer where they are no matter what inducements the city offers them to move, if for no other reason that they know they can make money by doing it. We can appreciate the grit and entrepreneurial spirit they have shown by operating businesses in parts of the city where other vendors seldom dare venture, and we appreciate the tremendous toll the riot damage took on them. These small business owners, many of them Korean immigrants, work tremendously hard, and we are certain they have no intention of harming the communities in which they operate. But their cumulative effect is undeniable.

When the Rawlings-Blake administration first proposed eliminating non-conforming liquor stores through the zoning code, we encouraged it to offer whatever assistance it could for these merchants to relocate or change their stores. The loan fund provides just such an opportunity. The owners of the 23 liquor stores in question should take the city up on its offer of interest free loans if they come into compliance because if they don't, they may very well find themselves forced to through enforcement of the zoning code two or three years down the road. The riots were a terrible calamity for the affected neighborhoods, but they also offer the possibility of rebirth. The owners of these non-conforming liquor stores should take advantage of it.

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