Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, joined by other community leaders, announced the city's policy regarding assistance to non-conforming liquor stores damaged during the recent unrest. (Tom Brenner/Baltimore Sun)
City officials who for years have tried to close liquor stores located in residential neighborhoods have a new incentive at their disposal: the interest-free loans available to businesses damaged in the rioting that followed Freddie Gray's April 27 funeral.
On Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reiterated her policy that 23 liquor stores — unlike the rest of the nearly 400 businesses that sustained riot damage — are ineligible for the city loans because they do not conform to a zoning ban on alcohol sales in residential areas.
As The Baltimore Sun reported Sunday, 23 of the 40 liquor stores looted or damaged in the rioting are considered nonconforming. They would be asked to stop selling alcohol or relocate if they want city assistance, although the state, which is also offering interest-free recovery loans of up to $35,000, has no similar restrictions.
"I have a great amount of sympathy for those stores that have been damaged, and we want them to rebuild," Rawlings-Blake said Monday. "We want them to reopen. But with all the grants and the loan programs that we have available we have a unique opportunity for these nonconforming liquor stores to convert into uses that can uplift our community."
Rawlings-Blake was joined by Dr. Leana Wen, the city health commissioner, and City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton at an event in Park Heights to highlight Baltimore's long-running attempt to reduce the number of liquor stores in certain neighborhoods. They said that liquor stores contribute to crime and poor health in impoverished areas, which need other kinds of stores, such as those that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
Park Heights has a particularly high density of liquor stores, although none was damaged amid the rioting sparked by Gray's death. Still, officials and community activists decried what they said are the ill effects of having too many liquor stores in one area.
"Crime and grime is around liquor stores." said Middleton, who represents the area. "So if they're not going to work with the community, and change, they need to go."
City officials have said there are about 100 nonconforming liquor stores throughout the city; they were allowed to continue operating even as zoning laws were enacted to ban alcohol sales in residential areas. Many are owned by Korean-Americans, some of whom say the city is making them scapegoats for Baltmore's problems.
"The liquor store is not the original crime, the crime is [by] the people," said Tak Song, who owns J&J Discount Liquor, about a block north of where the city officials discussed the issue on Monday. "I don't think a crackdown on liquor stores will allow crime to decrease."
Across the street, several men at the Park Heights Barber Shop said they were encouraged that the city was taking on an issue they had long identified as a problem in their community.
"You have so many people that want to have fruit and vegetables in this community," said Johnny Clinton, the shop owner. "You want to help the people to become healthy. We can't just let people drink liquor. It's not good for them."
Wen cited studies showing that more alcohol outlets in an area correlate with increased violence and poorer health. She and Rawlings-Blake have been promoting a recent report showing that one in four Baltimoreans lives in a "food desert," an area where there is no supermarket within a quarter-mile, limited access to transportation and a concentration of poverty. Non-conforming liquor stores should consider offering fresh food in these areas, Wen said.
"Imagine how much this would transform this neighborhood to have liquor stores turn into grocery stores and other businesses that improve the community's health," Wen said.
At Slater's Market, located on the same block of Park Heights Avenue as several liquor stores, the owners are trying to expand their offerings of healthier food, said Ewan "Mike" Meiklejohn, who works there. But customers are not always accustomed to looking for fresh food in the store, which also sells beer and wine, and it spoils before it can sell, he said.
"This morning we dumped a big watermelon that we had cut up," Meiklejohn said. "Sometimes even milk we have to dump because the people aren't buying much."
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The city has been working on an overhaul of its zoning code for several years, and the City Council continues to hold workshops on potential changes. Officials have proposed giving nonconforming liquor stores two years to change what they sell or relocate to more commercial areas where alcohol sales are permitted.
Rawlings-Blake said she hopes the new attention brought to nonconforming liquor stores by her decision to limit riot-recovery loans will revive discussions on the proposed zoning changes.
"My hope is that this issue will start the debate anew in the City Council," Rawlings-Blake said. "There has been debate, there's been delay on dealing with this issue of nonconforming liquor stores.
"We cannot allow this issue to languish. We have to deal with it. We have to look for ways to support our communities. And to say, 'Listen, this is not about taking away a business, this is about taking back our communities.'"