Campaign Consultation Weighs In on Proposed Wal-Mart Debate

Read the varying opinions captured in the “Shopping Center Plan is Food for Thought at Restaurant” article by Larry Perl below. How do you respond to Wal-Mart coming to District 7. What if it was coming to your community?

The critics have been vocal and supporters mostly silent at community meetings about plans for a $65 million shopping center with apartments in north Baltimore.

But Spiro Conits, owner of the New Wyman Park Restaurant, said the naysayers have been at community association meetings — and the cheerleaders are at his restaurant.

“Anybody I’ve heard talk about it is for it,” Conits said.

The eatery, 138 W. 25th St., at the corner of 25th and Howard streets, is open for breakfast and lunch at ground zero of 25th Street Station, a proposed 11-acre shopping center.

The center would be co-anchored by a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s.

It would be on the current Anderson Automotive site across the street from New Wyman Park Restaurant.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, 7th District, who represents the area, introduced zoning legislation April 19 to make the site a Planned Unit Development — ensuring that the project will move forward for city review and public hearings.

On a recent Wednesday, as everyone from retirees and church pastors to artists and fuel company executives packed into booths and lined counter stools for lunch, opinions on the proposed shopping center came as fast as the food orders.

But their thoughts were as varied as the menu.

Start with Conits, who added the word “New” to the name of the 70-year-old eatery when he bought it in 1989.

He supports a shopping center and worries that when the Anderson Honda moves to Hunt Valley in 2011 and the nearby GMC dealership closes, the space will sit vacant, which he said would do nobody any good.

He also would like to see the Charles Village and Remington neighborhoods get an economic boost.

“It’s better than having something empty over there,” Conits said. “And you figure it will bring up the area. To me, I think it’s all right.”

Eating lunch at the counter near the cash register was artist Herb Massie, who lives in the Mondawmin Mall area but said he does a lot of work in north Baltimore.

He was less enamored of the development project, and said the anchors could put small businesses such as hardware stores in the north Baltimore area out of business.

And Massie, 53, said there are other ways to lift up the area economically.

“A job training center, that’s what we need over here. That would be a plus,” he said.

Expressing more goodwill toward a shopping center were mortician Jonathan Hibner, 44, of Pikesville, and funeral supplies salesman Carl Timbers, 75, of Randallstown.

“If it builds a good economic base in the city, I think it’s good,” Hibner said, adding that the shopping center would be a convenient location near Interstate 83.

But he predicted that a shopping center would not be approved by the city without a fight.

“There’s going to be some give and take — a lot of give and take,” he said.

At the other end of the counter was longtime customer and Charles Village resident Steve Rivelis, in his 50s, who said he supports a shopping center but not necessarily a Wal-Mart.

“We just don’t need a Wal-Mart,” said Rivelis, who owns Campaign Consultation, a consulting firm that works for social change and community development.

“Everywhere a Wal-Mart has gone, they’ve sucked the life out of the community,” he said.

Rivelis said he would support a Lowe’s if it operates more as an appliance store than as a hardware store that would compete with smaller stores.

And, as Conits listened in, Rivelis speculated that if a Wal-Mart is built, “they might put a little cafeteria in there, and then Spiro would be hurt.”

Rivelis said he is glad the project is generating a healthy dialogue and differences of opinion are being aired early on in the process.

“The debate is good,” he said.

Sitting in the back booth were John Phelps, president of the Baltimore-based Carroll Independent Fuel Co., and Jay Tan, general manager of the 250 Carroll-branded Citgo, Sunoco, BP and Carrollfuel gas stations in the mid-Atlantic region.

They too are supporters of the shopping center.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Phelps said.

He said the shopping center would benefit and link neighborhoods in the area, including Charles Village, Charles Street from Mount Vernon north, the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Miller’s Court, an affordable housing complex marketed to public school teachers, and located right up the street from the restaurant.

“It would be nice to start glueing (the area) together,” Phelps said.

And they agreed that a shopping center would be a major convenience for the area.

But Phelps said critics may have an argument when it comes to the potential impact of a Wal-Mart on local businesses.

“I can see their point,” he said, specifically citing hardware stores like Falkenhan’s in Hampden among the stores that would be threatened.

“Those guys are the fabric of the community,” he said.

“You hate to see them go.”