black-owned-businesses-are-leading-downtown-baltimore’s-revitalization

Black-Owned Businesses Are Leading Downtown Baltimore’s Revitalization

It’s bright and airy inside LaTonya Turnage’s bridal boutique in downtown Baltimore. Gorgeous white gowns line the walls, and you can see how it’s easy for so many brides to fall in love with their wedding dresses there.

Turnage takes great pride in her boutique and in the two other bridal-adjacent businesses she’s set up downtown. As you walk by and peek into the storefront at 339 N. Charles St., you see nearly a decade’s worth of Turnage’s investment in downtown Baltimore. 

As a born-and-raised Baltimorean, Turnage still pinches herself about the location. 

“To travel the street as a little girl riding the number 3 bus, never in a million years did I think that I would actually have a store on one of the main, busiest streets … the big main shopping district,” Turnage said while sitting inside her boutique on a recent spring day. 

With her purchase of Bella Bridesmaids next door and the opening of Elite Design House a few blocks south, Turnage is continuing to bet on downtown Baltimore. 

She’s not the only one — across the city’s downtown district, Black-owned businesses are at the forefront of the neighborhood’s revitalization.

Many have their anxieties as small-business owners taking a chance on a neighborhood, but in interviews, they expressed fondness for how bustling and lively the downtown of their youth was. They believe they can help get it back to that state. 

As of June 2023, downtown Baltimore was at 68% of its pre-pandemic activity rate — middle of the pack for Northeastern cities — per a University of Toronto study that compared unique mobile phone activity in 2019 and 2023.

As of June 2023, downtown Baltimore was at 68% of its pre-pandemic activity rate — middle of the pack for Northeastern cities — per a University of Toronto study that compared unique mobile phone activity in 2019 and 2023.

Residential occupancy downtown was at 92.5% in 2023 compared to 93.5% in 2019, with 4,634 housing units added between 2017 and 2022 and more on the way, per the Downtown RISE strategic action plan recently released by Mayor Brandon Scott and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. 

“DPOB [Downtown Partnership of Baltimore] predicts continued downtown residential growth, projecting downtown residential unit demand to grow to a potential of 7,025 new rental and for-sale units over the next 5 years,” the report reads.

The rise in residential living downtown, especially as more office buildings are converted to apartments amid the popularity of hybrid and work-from-home arrangements, means an increase in small businesses catered toward lifestyle improvements. 

Stem & Vine, a wine bar and plant shop at 326 N. Charles St., is more than just a wine bar and plant shop to owner Quincy Goldsmith.

Goldsmith wants to help customers escape the stressors of daily life — it’s frowned upon to be hunched over a laptop inside — and teach them about the history of the plants he’s learned about during his travels.

“Some of these plants, I swear, can be action heroes with some of the tales that they’ve been through, and those are things that I want to bring forward,” Goldsmith said.

“We want to provide entertainment, for sure; we want to get people out of their comfort zones that they’ve been in during COVID for so long, but I wanna do that with some education.”

With classroom space and a hidden courtyard behind his storefront, Goldsmith wants to create programming for every kind of person spending time downtown, whether it’s the state government employees moving in nearby or moms who come in for their own plant classes (parents can drop their children off with a child educator in another room).

It’s this kind of experiential retail that Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, believes will continue to solidify downtown’s residential presence and allow for a more lively neighborhood outside of work hours. 

In the last few years, DPOB has invested $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding into small businesses downtown through the Black Owned and Operated Storefront Tenancy (BOOST) program, Operation Storefront and Facade Improvement Program. 

That money has gone to supporting three rounds of BOOST program participants, grants that brought other new businesses to set up downtown and funding that helped already existing businesses stay downtown by renovating their buildings.

Sisters Elle Odoi and Yvette Pappoe, cofounders of interior design firm Décorelle and participants in the second round of the BOOST program, are eagerly awaiting the late July opening of their shop dede at 305 N. Howard St., below the new Crook Horner Lofts. They hope it can be a place where residents can find upscale home furnishings, like vases designed by Odoi and candles themed for every season — everything they’d need to put the final touches on their living space.

As the first commercial tenants on the block in a while, Odoi knows there’ll be challenges in bringing in foot traffic. The two plan to take steps to make customers feel more welcome, like renting parking spaces for visitors in the lot behind their building and setting up an entrance where customers will be buzzed in. 

They both have faith that being in this storefront and coming back to their roots in Baltimore was the right decision for them. They hope that any success they have will encourage building owners and other potential businesses to invest in Howard Street again too. 

“We grew up in Baltimore, and so I remember how amazing that space used to be and how many businesses were there. It would be just a blessing if we are one of the impacts that allows it to come back,” Odoi said. 

She hopes to work closely with the Black-owned businesses on Healthy Howard Row — a collective nickname for Cajou Creamery, Vegan Juiceology and Cuples Tea House on the 400 block that have already been working to bring customers back to Howard Street. 

Every business owner interviewed for this story emphasized the importance of a community feeling among downtown’s small businesses. They don’t just help each other with words of advice; they show up for each other, whether it’s at a grand opening or an anniversary party.

They know how tenuous success downtown can be, and how much that support system will help them last. 

Cuples Tea House, run by Lynnette and Eric Dodson, has been at 409 N. Howard St. for almost three years now, after six years of the shop operating online and at pop-ups.

They’ve had success in their location, even opening up a sister business, Vinyl and Pages, next door, but Lynnette is frank that the business always ebbs and flows. 

“The anxiety for me is the ‘hurry up and wait.’ There’s so many great ideas floating around, but putting them all together is a whole other story.”
-Lynnette Dodson

“The anxiety for me is the ‘hurry up and wait.’ There’s so many great ideas floating around, but putting them all together is a whole other story,” she said.

Still, they’re proud to be part of the cohort bringing life back to Howard Street.

“We always say we’ve got people on Howard Street with tea and their pinkies up,” Lynnette joked. 

“It’s such an urban, gritty block with the light rail, and even the graffiti has a place there, but it’s cool to see that people are now coming back downtown. They’re rediscovering downtown.”

For these business owners, the dream is simple: seeing a bustling downtown again. The challenge in many Baltimore neighborhoods, but especially downtown, is building connectivity between blocks that already see a good amount of foot traffic.

Stem & Vine owner Quincy Goldsmith. Photo credit: Myles Michelin

Turnage, the owner of several bridal businesses downtown, believes small businesses are what’s going to make downtown feel like a thriving neighborhood again. While she and other business owners all expressed gratitude for the patchwork of organizations that have supported them so far, they would like to see the city address some of the barriers to entry and operation they’ve faced.

Zoning issues, bureaucratic red tape and landlord disputes were some of the top issues raised. Stem & Vine opened in December 2023 after three years of renovations and building issues. Cuples Tea House has been trying to get a loading zone installed in front of the business for months, and dede’s opening has been pushed back several months because of issues getting an occupancy permit.

DPOB has served as a big-brother entity of sorts for these businesses, providing financial assistance and mentorship and serving as an advocate for more business-friendly legislation, like House Bill 1089, which aims to make it easier for small businesses downtown to receive liquor licenses.

Stokes, the president of DPOB, said there’s been a learning curve at every stage for their initiatives, particularly the BOOST program. They now take a block-by-block approach to filling out downtown, working with local partners like University of Maryland, Baltimore, instead of having businesses scattered around the neighborhood. 

“We want to make sure that we are revitalizing downtown in the process, but we don’t want to do it at the risk of businesses,” Stokes said.

Mayor Scott’s Downtown RISE action plan, released on April 24, plans to tackle economic development, infrastructure, entertainment, and public safety and cleanliness amidst the grand plans to reimagine and revitalize Harborplace and downtown as a whole.

Mayor Scott’s Downtown RISE action plan, released on April 24, plans to tackle economic development, infrastructure, entertainment, and public safety and cleanliness amidst the grand plans to reimagine and revitalize Harborplace and downtown as a whole. 

Among the business-focused initiatives are plans to overhaul the city’s permit system by the end of the year to “significantly reduce the bureaucratic friction that often hinders business expansion and relocation,” reduce capital investment requirements for downtown restaurants seeking a liquor license and continue funding for the BOOST program and facade improvement grants through DPOB.

DPOB also plans to set aside $100,000 each for eight to ten new restaurants downtown to increase food options and reduce vacancy in the neighborhood through the Downtown Restaurant Recovery Program.

Despite their anxieties, small-business owners downtown recognize how promising the investment in their neighborhood right now is. They want it to feel like a real neighborhood again, where businesses outnumber vacants and where they have strong connections with residents who live on their block. 

“This is the core of the city,” Goldsmith, the owner of Stem & Vine, said. “If we want to make change, it has to start from the middle.”

Click here to listen to Sanya Kamidi talk about this story on WYPR.

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