Baltimore has labored in recent years to transform itself from a hub of manufacturing and steel production to one known for trendy neighborhoods, growing tourism and Under Armour, the homegrown sports apparel empire.
But since violent clashes Monday night after the funeral of Freddie Gray, the world has seen Baltimore’s businesses and attractions shuttered, conventions canceled and a few retail outlets looted and burned out.
With each day, the economic scars deepen. The unrest has impacted more than 150 firms, the state’s top business official estimated on Wednesday, either because they suffered damage, were restricted by the curfew
(10 p.m. to 5 a.m.) that began Tuesday or closed down in order to ensure the safety of employees.
The city has already lost two conventions that would have brought a combined 2,500 people to the city this week, and a third is being postponed.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox, but fans were barred from the game — an unprecedented security step — and largely avoided the gaggle of restaurants, shops and bars outside Camden Yards.
A liquor store owner said sales had dropped 20 to 30 percent.
“It all comes just as baseball season starts. This is an absolute disaster,” said Pete Rush, managing partner of the Goddess strip club on Eutaw Street. “We were expecting this would’ve been a record-breaking April.”
State officials said they plan to seek federal assistance to temper the losses. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he did not have an estimate of the financial impact on businesses, but added that Maryland would need more than federal dollars to recover.
“It’s the reputation we’ve got to heal,” Hogan said. “We’ve got to convince people that it’s a great place to come. We’ve got to get the tourism dollars back, and we’ve got to convince companies that they need to stay here in Baltimore and to convince other ones to come.”
The city’s top tourism official, Tom Noonan of Visit Baltimore, said he expected a three- to six-month hit to the bottom line of hotels, shops and restaurants, similar to what parts of New Orleans endured after Hurricane Katrina and St. Louis experienced after unrest last year following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in the nearby town of Ferguson, Mo.
Noonan said he had worked since Tuesday to reassure convention and meeting planners who have events scheduled in coming weeks. “One of the most important things we can do right now is get information into people’s hands,” he said.
The American Heart Association canceled a meeting worth about $1.2 million to the city, and the Door and Hardware Institute also canceled an event. Noonan said the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association was postponing a planned meeting.
Both the heart association and the hardware group said they based their decisions to cancel on safety concerns, a stinging blow for a city still trying to shed its reputation as a real-life version of HBO’s hit series “The Wire.”
Steven C. Isberg, associate professor of financial economics at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, said the city can’t afford an overload of negativity as it tries to build a tourism industry. He described much of the nonstop media coverage of the rioting as unfair.
“The images that you’re seeing on TV and the commentary that you’re hearing that goes with it is focused on the combative relationship between the neighbors and the police . . . and that’s an issue,” Isberg said. “But it’s an issue in every major American city. Especially every post-industrial city.”
Workers on essential business are permitted to travel to and from work after the 10 p.m. curfew, but employee safety remains a concern for business owners. Marshall Weston Jr., president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said his advice to restaurant owners was to “not put their employees in a difficult position.”
At M&S Grill at the Inner Harbor, executive chef John Williams said restaurants and bars had been waiting for the gorgeous spring weather that finally descended — after the city had largely shut down.
“Baltimore’s a town where we expect to be busy and slammed,” he said. Instead, it felt like a ghost town.
But the impact on communities in West Baltimore, where the unrest was concentrated, is worse, Isberg said. The torched CVS pharmacy on Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, was one of the few sources of groceries and household goods in its neighborhood.
And at Mondawmin Mall, the site of the initial altercations, only the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy opened its doors on Wednesday. The rest of the mall’s 100-plus stores were boarded or chained.
Despite the degree to which Baltimore’s economy has transitioned, Isberg said, widening wealth gaps in the city were a concern well before Gray’s death. “If those local businesses don’t come back, it affects the vibrancy of these types of neighborhoods,” he said.
R. Michael Gill, Hogan’s top economic development aide, said businesses with two or three employees are likely to be hurt the worst. “It’s everything from a flower shop to a little convenience store in a neighborhood to everything in between,” he said.
Gill said it remains to be seen how the unrest will factor into decisions from business owners about whether to open or expand in the city.
But he remains optimistic. He predicted that most business people considering Baltimore would see what happened Monday night “for what it really was — three hundred or four hundred people lawlessly taking advantage of a situation.”
“Those companies that might have been contemplating moving into this city . . . I feel totally confident that it’s going to be full-speed ahead for those businesses,” he said.
Keith Alexander, Arleis R. Hernández and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report from Baltimore.