Two weeks ago, Nelson Bolton, a 33-year-old bank employee, paid $100 to the city of Baltimore and became one of 15 participants in "shopsteading" - a unique program begun here to revitalize commercial areas that were devastated by the 1968 riots.
Bolton's $100 bought him and his partner a huge brick corner store front at 1501 West Baltimore St., that they plan to use an ice cream parlor. At the turn of the century, the structure was Arundel's Ice Cream store, but the building has been vacant for years and now is detoriated and boarded up, its address written in large chalk letters on the front.
To Bolton, who also is a part owner of the Sundae Times Ice Cream Parlor in South Baltimore, his new store represents an investment in the city's future.
"I'm excited about what's happening in the city's neighborhoods," Bolton said. "I have high hopes for it (shopsteading). All these neighborhoods are starting to come back, and people like to have shops and areas of identity like ice cream parlors."
Shopsteading is the commercial counterpart of homesteading, a program begun several years ago in which persons purchase federally owned and city owned homes for $1, renovate them, and live in them for at least several years. Baltimore has about 400 homesteaders. It was one of the first cities to have a homesteading program, and it apparently is the first to begin shopsteading.
Baltimore's shopsteaders will put life into tow of the city's historic neighborhoods, Union Square and the Shot Tower Park area of central downtown. The 11 Union Square properties are in the 1300, 1400 and 1500 blocks of West Baltimore Street, and the three Shot Tower Park areas are in the 800 block of East Baltimore Street - only three blocks from The Block, Baltimore's sleazy night life district. The stores are also near Corned Beef Row, a street of shops specializing in ethnic foods. One store front is in the 1600 block of Frederick Ave.
Under the program, shopsteaders pay $100 each for vacant and boarded properties that the city acquired after owners abandoned them and failed to pay taxes.
Shopsteaders can get financial help to renovate and operate their shops through Small Business Administration loan programs and through a city-funded loan program. Total renovation of the first 15 properties may run about $750,000 a city official said.
Aurelio F. Goicochea, a commercial revitalization representative for Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, said that shopsteaders can borrow from the city up to $50,000 per structure for renovation with no down payment, and pay 7 per cent interest for 20 years. Shopsteaders are given title to their property after renovation. More store-fronts will be available for the program by February, Goicochea said.
Shopsteading is another of Baltimore's efforts to renew itself. "Welcome to Baltimore, A Working American City," reads the sign as you enter the city, and officials have embarked on an ambitious program over the past few years to make the city live up to that designation.
Besides its successful homesteading program that is rehabilitating many of the city's rowhouses, Baltimore has new buildings that tower into its skyline, a lively urban waterfront area called the Inner Harbor and rejuvenated and colorful residential sections. The city also has an extensive commercial revitalization program involving public and private coopration.
Baltimore is a city of diverse neighborhoods with many old buildings, and rather than bulldoze those buildings as many other cities have done, Baltimore officials chose to rehabilitate them.
M. J. Brodie, Baltimore's housing commissioner, said the city uses a process he calls "architectural subtraction - you take away the junk that has accumulated on the buildings over the years and get down to the basic structure. It takes a while to unfold, but you end up with a nice attractive area."
Brodie called the shopsteading program "a small step forward." He said the city isn't trying to pretend that it can turn the clock back to the days of the "mom and pop" neighborhood stores.
"It doesn't bring back life to all our vacant stores," Brodie said. "Basic economic trends won't allow that." Brodie estimated that of the 5,000 vacant buildings the city owns, about 500 of them are stores and shops. He said that if the city "shows some successes" with shopsteading, he hopes that the city can get funds from private institutions and the federal government.
"People are interested in opening their own small businesses - gift shops, arts and crafts, and little growing business," the housing commissioner said. "Traditionally the city has been the incubator for such businesses. I'd like to see the city do that again." Baltimore officials noted that many cities across the country have expressed an interest in shopsteading and had asked Baltimore for information about its program.
Shopsteading was the brainchild of Jo Anne Whitely, a Union Square community activist. Whitely toured the Hollins Market area of Baltimore with Baltimore Mayor Willion Donald Schaefer and other city officials several years ago.When they approached a run-down business section, she mentioned the words "shopstead" to the mayor.
"I had a simple little idea I wanted to mention to the mayor. And he listened," Whitely said.
After two years of meetings and planning sessions, Baltimore finally came up with a program it felt would work. Mayor Schaefer said the city will support the investment of shopsteaders by making public improvements in commercial and residential areas along Baltimore Street.
The first shopsteaders selected from 30 applicants are a diverse group. Six are black, two are Hispanic, and four are women. Five of them don't even live in Baltimore.
David Hill, who plans to open a Mexican and Southwestern American restaurant on West Baltimore Street with some friends, lives in Falls Church, Va. Hill said he has dreamed of opening an ethnic food restaurant for years, but was successful at finding a good location for the restaurant in Washington.
The few places he found that were suitable were not zoned properly and he couldn't get the sites rezoned, he said. The Baltimore housing staff said it could cost $120,000 to get Hill's new restaurant ready for operation. Hill said he and his partners plan to do some of the renovation work themselves.
Juliane Atwater, 27, lives in Annapolis, and plans to move her kitchen and restaurant supply business from Annapolis to 813 East Baltimore Street. Renovation on her shop may cost $40,000.
William R. Bull, 30, lives around the corner from where his new beauty parlor will be on West Baltimore Street. "I'm willing to try it," said Bull who already owns a beauty parlor in Towson. "In five to 10 years, it may be something really solid."