By Jessica Anderson
BALTIMORE — More than 30 business and restaurant owners in Fells Point are threatening to withhold taxes if city leaders do not address crime, trash and other issues they say are plaguing the waterfront neighborhood.
The group sent a letter to Baltimore officials Tuesday — two days after three people were shot in the popular and historic nightlife destination early Sunday morning — complaining about blatant drug sales, public drinking and other problems they say are happening in plain sight while police are handcuffed from enforcing the law.
The letter bemoans a “culture of lawlessness” that allows the “the kinds of violence and tragedy we witnessed (over the weekend).”
The letter is a sharp response not only to the violence of the weekend, but also to the policies of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who earlier this year announced that she will no longer prosecute a host of crimes, including drug possession, public drinking and urination, and trespassing, among others. It also comes as the police department faces mounting questions from residents about its strategies to quell violence as homicides and non-fatal shootings remain at high levels.
The letter was addressed to Mayor Brandon Scott, Council President Nick Mosby, Councilman Zeke Cohen, Mosby and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.
“I don’t think anybody wanted it to come to this. This was the final straw for them,” said Thiru Vignarajah, at attorney, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Scott in the 2020 Democratic mayoral primary and against Mosby previously in a bid for Baltimore state’s attorney. He said he is “serving as an advocate and organizer” for the group.
The group did not specify exactly what taxes it was threatening to withhold and gave no timeline for any possible action. The city solicitor’s office could not be reached for comment on what it would do in response.
The mayor’s office issued a written statement.
“Mayor Scott shares the business owners’ frustrations over the violence across the city, and has ordered the Baltimore Police Department, Department of Public Works, and Department of Transportation to work collaboratively to address it,” Scott’s spokesman, Cal Harris, said in a statement. “The Mayor is working tirelessly to hold people committing violence accountable, remove violent offenders from our streets, and identify illegal firearm traffickers so Baltimore residents can enjoy a night out without fear of endangerment.”
Baltimore police did not respond to requests for comment.
Zy Richardson, spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office, issued a statement saying the fights and shooting in Fells Point had nothing to do with the office policies to cease prosecuting nonviolent crimes.
”The assaults, the malicious destruction of personal and private property, and the shooting that took place in Fells Point this past weekend has nothing to do with our policies to divert those suffering from mental health and substance use disorders,” the statement said. “Our office has and will continue to focus our time, attention and limited resources on violent crime and serious felonies causing the most harm in our city.”
Vignarajah said many communities across the city have similar frustrations about trash and crime, and the Fells Point business owners are hoping that their actions will “open a constructive lane of dialogue with city leaders.” He said the group of businesses are speaking up not just for themselves, but for their customers and employees, and other communities.
“I think they are hoping to speak up on behalf of the entire city,” he said. “They know these problems are happening all over the city.”
The letter points particularly at what the business and restaurant owners say are the very public crimes taking place nightly that discourage people from visiting the neighborhood and hurts their ability to keep businesses running.
“These are not concealed, clandestine operations by sophisticated gangs with suppliers and lookouts. These are brazen individuals who conduct their business in plain sight because they know Baltimore City will do nothing to prevent or punish them,” the letter read. “This hurts the family fabric and tourist value of the community.”
After dark, crowds show up with coolers of alcohol and sell drinks on the streets, the owners said, and people advertise their homemade cocktails on Instagram. Some restaurant workers say they routinely see kids drinking, and that’s when the fights break out.
“It’s completely uncontrolled,” said Lance Sovine, who owns the E.C. Pops, a Maryland- and Pride-themed gift shop on South Broadway Street.
Sovine said he used to close the shop at midnight, doing about a third of its sales from a late-night crowd in the last four hours. Those sales, however, aren’t enough for Sovine to keep the doors open after dark. Now he closes at 8 p.m., he said.
“We see it. We know it’s happening. Yet our elected officials are turning a blind eye to it,” Sovine said.
He said their pleas for help to Councilman Zeke Cohen and Mayor Brandon Scott have gone unanswered.
“What I would like to see is our elected officials take ownership,” he said.
At Broadway Square at the heart of Fells Point, signs prohibit skateboarding and bicycling, and say that the square closes at 11 p.m., but the rules aren’t enforced.
Toni James, who with her husband owns the Katwalk Boutique and Angel Park men’s store on Aliceanna Street, said the rules should be enforced. She said the crowds in the square are bigger than in recent summers, and the people are coming to party not shop or eat.
“It’s a lot of people drinking outside,” she said. “The city definitely has to get a grip on it.”
In their letter, the business owners say they intend to withhold taxes, along with minor privilege and permit fees, and place those funds into an escrow account, which will not be released “until and unless basic and essential municipal services are restored.”
“We have struggled through a global pandemic, enduring restaurant shutdowns and mask mandates. For months, we have been holding on by a thread, waiting for daybreak, worrying whether we will make it or if we will be the next business to shutter our doors for good,” the letter stated.
The letter comes after a particularly violent weekend in Fells Point when three people were shot early Sunday morning in two separate incidents. Police said around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, officers patrolling the area found two men, 24 and 26 years old, suffering gunshot wounds in the 1700 block of Thames St. The injuries were not life-threatening.
A short time later, officers were called to nearby Aliceanna Street and South Broadway, where a man had been shot in the head.
Since Saturday night, videos have circulated on social media of fistfights in the square and people striking poses while standing on the hood of a police car.
Dimitris Spiliadis, the owner of The Black Olive restaurant on South Bond Street, said he felt he had to walk with some customers to make sure they reached their cars safely. He used to stop seating at 10 p.m.; now, it’s 8:30 p.m.
“You got cars parking here, pulling open their trunks, they got lights, a full bar. There’s an open-air selling of alcohol,” he said.
Spiliadis had a first career as a behavior intervention specialist, working with troubled children, he said, so he knows how to defuse tense confrontations and generally handle himself. He said he had no fear walking home late at night, until the gunshots rang out early Sunday morning and he went ducking for cover.
He blames some of the problem on the street closures. City crews have been shutting down the streets around South Broadway. Instead of easing traffic congestion, some restaurant workers and neighbors say, it’s causing a powder keg.
Spiliadis doesn’t blame the children, but rather the city leaders who he said have failed to invest in safe recreational places in Baltimore. He said he understands why Baltimore’s youth might resent the police, considering the department has endured scandals such as the Gun Trace Task Force.
“This is the result of a lot of misuse of public trust,” he said.
Still, Spiliadis said something must be done.
“The value of the community is at stake,” he said.
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