‘I WISH IT WAS BACK TO NOR­MAL’

Ex­o­dus of of­fice work­ers leaves void for down­town’s small busi­nesses

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Lor­raine Mirabella

Dur­ing the five months David and Shirlé Koslowski kept their Bal­ti­more cafe/record shop shut down and em­ploy­ees fur­loughed, they fig­ured out how to de­liver food, sold records on­line and in­stalled a car­ry­out win­dow in a his­toric build­ing.

Since re­open­ing Baby’s On Fire in down­town’s Mount Ver­non neigh­bor­hood Aug. 24, cus­tomers have trick­led back to out­door ta­bles and the new win­dow on Mor­ton Street — no one’s al­lowed in­side yet to eat or flip through the col­lec­tion of vinyl al­bums.

The small busi­ness has fewer em­ploy­ees, shorter hours and al­most none of the reg­u­lars who used to come from nearby of­fices. It has far less busi­ness — sales are down about 60%. But the own­ers say they are not dis­cour­aged.

Charles Street Prom­e­nade

When: To­day, 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.

Where: N. Charles Street from Saratoga Street to North Av­enue

“I wish it was back to nor­mal,” said David Koslowski, who has run the cafe for four years as well as an­other in Fells Point. “But we’re very thank­ful that we have out­door seat­ing. And peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood are su­per psyched that we’re back.”

Seven months af­ter the coron­avirus pan­demic up­ended life, down­town Bal­ti­more busi­nesses are still strug­gling. The Koslowskis, who used state grants and disas­ter loans for the car­ry­out win­dow ren­o­va­tions, say they feel for­tu­nate that in their part of down­town, res­i­dents now work­ing at home dur­ing the day help sus­tain them. But that’s not the case

ev­ery­where.

In much of down­town, of­fice work­ers and col­lege stu­dents have not re­turned, peo­ple won’t ven­ture out more than nec­es­sary, loan pay­ments loom for restau­rants and stores, and a fix from a vac­cine seems a long way off.

In a busi­ness district where once bustling side­walks ap­pear nearly de­serted and “For lease” and “Avail­able” signs cover a num­ber of store­fronts, some small mer­chants are barely hold­ing on. Some worry that colder weather — and ris­ing coron­avirus num­bers — will de­ter cus­tomers even more.

“It’s been ter­ri­ble and not look­ing much bet­ter for win­ter,” said Dave Niehenke, a co-owner with his sis­ter of Mick O’Shea’s pub-style restau­rant on North Charles Street. “We’re still around, but we’re also in debt up to our eye­balls.”

The busi­ness, which has worked its way up to of­fer­ing din­ing in­side and out­side, in ad­di­tion to curb­side car­ry­out and de­liv­ery, had its best month in Septem­ber since the start of the clo­sures. But that was at just over 40% of last Septem­ber’s sales.

The restau­rant of­fers de­liv­ery through UberEats, but the ser­vice takes a chunk of sales. And even though the city now al­lows in­door din­ing at half ca­pac­ity, Mick O’Shea’s and other smaller places can’t even reach that level be­cause of dis­tanc­ing pro­to­cols.

Niehenke, who has run the bar and eatery for nearly two decades, had paid off busi­ness loans and ex­pected even­tu­ally to sell the busi­ness and re­tire. With a new round of emer­gency loans to pay off, that looks in­creas­ingly un­likely.

“It was al­ready a tough busi­ness to be­gin with, and now it’s worse,” he said. “Peo­ple want to ar­gue about masks.”

Java Joe’s re­opened on East Bal­ti­more Street af­ter La­bor Day, but Michael Dit­ter, owner of the restau­rant and cof­fee shop for nearly 30 years down­town, calls the level of busi­ness un­sus­tain­able, at about 20%. He used the clo­sure to ren­o­vate and kept his work­ers em­ployed. But his bread-and­but­ter cus­tomers, down­town of­fice com

muters, have stayed home or cut way back on of­fice hours.

“If you’re com­ing to work and are mak­ing the trip down­town and go­ing into your of­fice for four hours, you’re not stop­ping to get break­fast or tak­ing a break to eat at lunch, and that’s what we de­pended on, be­ing the break in that per­son’s eight hour day,” Dit­ter said.

Dit­ter sat at an out­door ta­ble along the street Tues­day and lamented that he could take time to sit down dur­ing what in nor­mal times would be lunch rush. Only a cou­ple of cus­tomers walked in.

He’s kept the cof­fee shop go­ing thanks to for­giv­able loans through the fed­eral pay­check pro­tec­tion pro­gram. Agrow­ing pop­u­la­tion of down­town res­i­dents, many liv­ing in new build­ings or converted of­fice tow­ers, has not been able to make up for lost sales, he said.

Down­town busi­ness groups say they have looked for ways to boost strug­gling mer­chants’ dur­ing the health cri­sis, such as by cre­at­ing more than a dozen “parklets” with ta­bles out­side restau­rants along North Charles Street.

Busi­nesses have said “this is re­ally help­ing us sur­vive and make it,” said Kristin Speaker, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Charles

Street De­vel­op­ment, one of the non­profit groups be­hind the ef­fort. Speaker’s group, which pro­motes small busi­ness and in­vest­ment on Charles Street, is now help­ing restau­rants look for and pur­chase heaters for out­door din­ing.

In an­other ini­tia­tive, North Charles, from Saratoga Street to North Av­enue, will be closed to ve­hi­cles Satur­day in a COVID-19 ver­sion of a street fes­ti­val. Or­ga­niz­ers, in­clud­ing half a dozen neigh­bor­hood and busi­ness groups, say large gath­er­ings are not al­lowed, but they in­stead want to en­able peo­ple to stroll in a safe, so­cially dis­tant way and shop and dine at small busi­nesses hurt in the pan­demic.

The Down­town Part­ner­ship of Bal­ti­more also is work­ing on busi­ness and con­sumer sur­veys that will mea­sure im­pact from COVID-19 and help busi­nesses plan for fu­ture busi­ness. In a sur­vey re­leased in June, taken shortly af­ter the COVID-19 shut­downs started, 94% of down­town busi­nesses said they felt an im­pact from the health cri­sis with more than 15% los­ing more than 90% of their rev­enue since March 1.

“Busi­ness are try­ing to fig­ure out how do I ad­just,” said Sh­elonda Stokes, pres­i­dent of the part­ner­ship. “Restau­rants need to know so they can stock up ac­cord­ingly. All of us need to work to­gether and com­mu­ni­cate in ways we hadn’t pre­vi­ously.”

Va­lerie Git­tings hopes Satur­day’s Charles Street clo­sure will in­tro­duce her busi­ness, Smooth Wax Bar, to new cus­tomers and re­mind oth­ers the body and fa­cial wax­ing stu­dio in the 1100 block of North Charles Street is open. She can’t host any­one in­side for the event — wax­ings are by ap­point­ment only — but will have an in­for­ma­tional ta­ble out­side.

Git­tings, who kept the stu­dio closed for three months, said busi­ness is down about 30% with­out col­lege stu­dents and of­fice work­ers from nearby state agen­cies and com­pa­nies such as Agora. And less leisure travel has meant fewer clients book­ing body wax­ing ap­point­ments be­fore trips.

She’s stay­ing afloat by dip­ping into sav­ings. She did not qual­ify for a fed­eral pay­roll pro­tec­tion loan be­cause her em­ploy­ees are in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors.

“Right now, we’re tread­ing wa­ter and hop­ing that things don’t get worse or that more re­stric­tions don’t go in place in the fall,” Git­tings said. “If there’s an­other wave, [of the virus], I’m not sure the busi­ness can with­stand it.”

An­other un­known is when — or even whether — of­fice work­ers will re­turn at pre-COVID-19 lev­els. A na­tion­wide work­force sur­vey re­leased Wed­nes­day showed an in­creas­ing num­ber of em­ploy­ers plan to of­fer re­mote work op­tions af­ter the cri­sis ends. The sur­vey by getAb­stract said the share of em­ploy­ers who plan to of­fer that choice in­creased to 38% from 20% in April.

With­out of­fice work­ers and ho­tel guests, Ab­dul Aziz, owner of Papa Menu gro­cery and convenienc­e store on East Bal­ti­more Street down­town, has lit­tle busi­ness left and no way to pay months of back rent.

In the spring he had to throw out dated mer­chan­dise that didn’t sell, then he lost more money over the sum­mer when his store was bro­ken into sev­eral times and he had to in­vest in shat­ter­proof glass. Busi­ness is down by about half, and he has cut back on morn­ing hours.

“We can­not make money,” Aziz said. “The city of­fices need to come back, then we can make money.”

JERRY JACK­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Shirlé Koslowski takes a cus­tomer’s or­der through a win­dow at Baby’s On Fire cafe and record shop in Mount Ver­non.

LOR­RAINE MIRABELLA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Michael Dit­ter, owner of Java Joe’s, says busi­ness has been nearly un­sus­tain­able dur­ing the pan­demic.

LOR­RAINE MIRABELLA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ab­dul Aziz, owner of Papa Menu gro­cery and convenienc­e store, has lit­tle busi­ness left and no way to pay months of back rent with­out a base of down­town of­fice work­ers.

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