It’s been four months since more than 400 Baltimore businesses were damaged in riots following the death of Freddie Gray. Most — but not all — of those businesses have reopened, although some are still struggling to get back the customers they lost.
Six weeks after the April riots, the windows of Taylor Alexander’s women’s clothing store were still boarded up. Her shop, Flawless Damsels, was so empty inside that her voice echoed off the walls when she described what it used to look like before looters cleared her out.
“All of here was full of clothes. We had everything set up,” she said, pointing to blank purple walls. “We had mannequins hanging off of the walls that had jewelry on them, the shoes and handbags and everything matched with it.”
But this past weekend was an entirely different story. The store, located near the city’s downtown, was crammed with people helping Alexander celebrate her grand reopening. There were a DJ who had the music blaring and free cupcakes. The walls were covered with the latest fall fashions and handbags. A glass display case was filled with jewelry.
Alexander was able to reopen because she got a no-interest loan of up to $35,000 from the city. Friends and family raised $7,000 online to help her restock. She also had to make some changes, including installing metal shutters to cover the doors and windows at night. But Alexander says she never doubted she’d be back in business.
“Elated, all the words that mean joyous — that’s how I feel right now,” she said, as she greeted customers with a huge smile.
Local officials say this is just the kind of small business Baltimore needs for its neighborhoods to thrive.
“It’s really encouraging that somebody stuck through all the adversity and is back here. This is a great celebration,” says Bill Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is overseeing the recovery effort.
So far, the city has provided more than $500,000 in grants and loans to some 60 businesses damaged during the unrest. The state of Maryland has provided nearly $1 million more in no-interest loans. Cole estimates that about 90 percent of the stores are back up and running, but he admits some are struggling.
“A lot of the businesses have been able to reopen but not at full capacity. It’s taken a while to get merchandise. It’s taken a while to cobble together the money necessary for them to buy enough merchandise to reopen at full capacity,” he says, adding that some stores were hampered by a lack of insurance.
And indeed, while Alexander’s shop was bustling, that wasn’t the case everywhere.
About 4 miles away on West Pratt Street, the Cash USA pawn shop and J-Mart Wigs, a variety store, remain shuttered. Matthew Chung, the son of J-Mart’s owners, says that his Korean immigrant parents were too traumatized by the violence to reopen.
It was also relatively quiet in the Highlandtown neighborhood, where sporting goods store Sneaky Feet reopened Aug. 1 after suffering $150,000 in damage. Weekend manager Mily Martinez said inventory is still low and the store doesn’t keep as much merchandise in the open as it used to.
“We have everything in the back now. Now we just … somebody asks for a shoe, just [for] security reasons, we give them only one shoe for the person to try,” Martinez said.
The store’s owner, Mario Diaz, says business has dropped by more than half, possibly because people don’t know he has reopened and that things in the city are returning to normal.
That’s a message Tom Noonan has been trying to get out. He’s president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism agency. Noonan says while convention business has remained the same or better, museums, restaurants and hotels have all felt the pinch from a drop in casual visitors from around the region.
“The Johnson family of four that live in Pennsylvania that have a choice this summer where they’re vacationing may not be selecting us as much as they have in the past,” Noonan says.
He says hotel occupancy rates are down 5 to 10 percent since the riots, but that the gap is narrowing.
But some people in the city, like Sneaky Feet owner Diaz, worry about the possibility of more unrest when the trials of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death begin this fall.