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Main Street Group Hopes to Jumpstart Retail in Northeast Baltimore

Sue Holmes, left, and Kim Gray, The Gift Cellar co-owners
Sue Holmes, left, and Kim Gray, The Gift Cellar co-owners - Steve Ruark
Regina Lansinger pulls up and parks across from a worn-out looking two-story building off Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore. The nearly 100-year-old structure was once a volunteer fire station, and after that was the Hamilton Democratic Club. On this grey, wintry morning, the building is really showing its age. To add insult to injury, a hit-and-run truck a few months ago smashed the wood frame of the front door and left alarming gaps in the brickwork.
But Lansigner, director of Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street, sees beyond the damage. She pictures a fully renovated space that would serve as a retail incubator for local businesses. Hamilton-Lauraville purchased the 3,250-square foot building at 30215 Hamilton Ave. in May for $64,000.
Now the group is seeking the public’s help to finance general improvements to the building and to prepare it for its new life. While incubators supporting nascent tech companies have sprouted throughout Greater Baltimore, this incubator will be a place where small, local businesses are nurtured until the owners are ready to move into a storefront of their own.  
Hamilton-Lauraville is known for restaurants, like Clementine and Maggie’s Farm (formerly the Chameleon Cafe), but there are only 12 places to shop along the one-mile stretch of Harford Road that is the neighborhood’s main business district. Lansinger says the Main Street group would especially like to attract clothing stores, shoe stores, and stores that sell household goods. It’s hoping to find that sweet spot: an alternative to the malls, but less pricey than high-end boutiques.  

Hamilton-Lauraville is a diverse neighborhood, with 5,650 owner-occupied homes out of 7,096 households. The local schools, Lansinger notes, are reporting growth in young families.The Main Street group’s research shows that more than one-fifth of the existing businesses on Harford Road are run by local residents. 
“So many retailers look at a neighborhood like ours which, is just far enough from downtown, and don’t see potential. We do,” Lansinger says. “There’s nothing in this neighborhood you can walk to, or even take a short drive to.”
The first floor of the firehouse will house the retail incubator. The second story will become office and meeting space. If all goes well, in a few years, the Main Street group will install a commercial kitchen. Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street will offer entrepreneurs business mentoring, legal advice, computer help, short-term leases, and below-market rents.
“I think so many people open businesses and they have no idea what they’re really going to face,” Lansinger says.<span class="content-callout-right" text="" i="" think="" so="" many="" people="" open="" businesses="" and="" they="" have="" no="" idea="" what="" they're="" really="" going="" to="" face.&quot;="" -="" regina="" lansinger,="" hamilton-lauraville="" main="" street"="">“I think so many people open businesses and they have no idea what they’re really going to face." - Regina Lansinger, Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street

Pam Wallace spent 18 years as a wholesaler to retail, and she’s seen a lot of inexperienced retailers fail. These days, Wallace is the Program Manager for Hamilton-Lauraville Healthy Neighborhood Initiative and says she hopes the incubator will encourage more shop owners to hit the ground running.
Says Wallace, “I watched people open businesses and fail because they didn’t have a support system.”

Kim Gray, owner of the Gift Cellar, says any effort to support the neighborhood’s retail environment is welcome. Since opening in December, Gray says business at the handmade jewelry, clothing, pottery, and print shop on Harford Road has been picking up.
Shawn Lagergren, owner of Hamilton pizza and Cajun food joint Tooloulou, says adding more retail would boost the area’s foot traffic and reputation as a destination among Baltimore residents. “It would be nice for them to say ‘Oh, Harford Road. There’s stores there.’”
To help raise money for the incubator, Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street has created a GiveCorps account to solicit donations from the community to help pay for the project. Most of the more-than $600 raised so far comes from modest contributions of $10 to $50 dollars. It’s a far cry from the goal of $25,000, but it’s a start.
Baltimore Main Streets will give a $6,000 grant to the project. Although a couple of other hoped-for grants didn’t come through, Lansinger says she is confident renovations will begin this spring.
“Our number one priority is to make it a safe building again,” Lansinger says.
Once the old firehouse is stabilized and renovated, Lansinger hopes to entice local entrepreneurs now working from home to move their operations to the revived building. Community leaders also know that throughout the neighborhood, there are budding shop owners among the artists and crafts people selling their wares on ETSY, the online source for homemade items, or their own websites.

“So there are a lot of people in the neighborhood that are working in their homes, and we would like to offer them the opportunity to see if they can survive in a storefront,” Lansinger says.

Amy Landsman is former radio and TV journalist who is now a Lutherville freelance writer. She’s very grateful not to have to put on makeup and face a camera every day. 

All photographs by STEVE RUARK

Click on each photograph to see the captions. 
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