Apr 30, 2015 6:01 PM

Baltimore riot damage adds burden to small businesses

The Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) Richard Sung Kang's American dream came crashing down in a shower of broken glass.

His West Baltimore liquor store and bar, the Oxford Tavern, was hit by looters during a riot over the police-involved death of neighborhood resident Freddie Gray.

The business wasn't torched like the nearby CVS pharmacy, but its doors and windows were broken and cash and inventory stolen, leaving shelves bare.

Now the 49-year-old South Korean immigrant must decide whether to reopen. If so, it could mean taking on more debt and paying higher insurance premiums.

"I don't know yet," said Kang, looking dejected and exhausted Wednesday after rioters damaged scores of businesses in pockets of the city.

About 200 small businesses were unable to open the day after the violence, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said.

The predominantly black neighborhood around Kang's store, which also includes CVS, took some of the worst of it. The area has already been abandoned by many businesses, with vacant storefronts on every block of North Avenue and many boarded-up homes on side streets.

Korean-Americans were particularly hard-hit: They run many small businesses in black neighborhoods in Baltimore, and there have been tensions between owners and residents.

In the 1990s, according to a 2004 study by the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, there were complaints by residents over the quality of food sold in local stores, while owners expressed concerns about crimes targeting them and their businesses.

CVS Health Corp. is already making plans to rebuild the burned-out pharmacy, spokeswoman Carolyn Castel wrote in an email. She said the company doesn't yet have a damage estimate to share, but said "we have a long history of serving inner-city communities and we remain committed to serving our patients and customers in Baltimore."

Rebuilding after riots is difficult and sometimes impossible for small businesses because most don't have the cash reserves of larger companies. Kang doesn't even own a home. He said he got a bank loan to buy the bar last year, after working nearly 10 years in Maryland as a biochemical researcher.

"Everybody says America is a dream come true," Kang said as locksmiths worked on his doors. "The most important thing is, I have to move on. But is it better to rebuild and start again or give up and find some other place? I don't know."

He said he was insured but didn't know if his policy would cover his losses. Although damage from civil unrest is covered under standard business insurance policies, many businesses don't have adequate coverage.

Insurance claims usually result in higher premiums, said Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer, Jr. He said insured losses from the riots will likely exceed $1 million.

About a half-dozen of the hundreds of insurers regulated by the commission have declared temporary moratoriums on accepting new business in affected areas, Redmer added. State regulations allow this, to protect consumers and taxpayers from attempts to take advantage of situations where the governor has declared a state of emergency or a special curfew is imposed both true in this case.

Help may be forthcoming from the Small Business Administration, which has offered low-interest loans after civil unrest elsewhere, including Ferguson, Missouri, last year. Gov. Hogan, a Republican, said his administration will "do what we can" to get SBA loans for uninsured businesses.

Once the state formally requests help, the SBA would have to declare a disaster to make businesses eligible for loans of up to $2 million at 4 percent annual interest, said SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang.

However, many business owners don't want loans, Chastang said. They don't want the burden of debt, and many, particularly small retailers, may not have the cash flow to make the payments.

Many companies would prefer grants, which they need not repay, but governments have little grant money available. Small businesses would have to hope that corporations or nonprofit organizations would make grants to help them recover.

Even companies that can rebuild face challenges. When a business is closed for an extended period, customers seek alternatives and may not return, said Jeffrey Robinson, a professor of entrepreneurship at Rutgers University.

The stigma attached to a riot-torn area is another obstacle for small businesses, making banks and investors uneasy about committing money, said Derek Hyra, a professor of public administration and policy at American University.

"It takes a long time in people's collective memory to remember these are vibrant, safe communities worth investing in," he said.

Many stricken businesses are owned by immigrants about half by Koreans, Hogan said.

Pakistani immigrant Rashid Khan reopened his corner grocery store Wednesday with the front window still boarded up. Khan said he borrowed $25,000 from friends and relatives two years ago to open the store and will seek their help again to recover from the riot.

Customers were waiting to buy soda, cigarettes, milk and snacks when Khan unlocked his store Wednesday morning. Some said the next nearest place for milk was eight blocks away.

David Jones, 30, bought a can of orange soda, happy that Khan had reopened.

"It's where you can go and get something to eat or drink," he said.

Cities hit by riots in the 1960s have taken decades to recover. Rebuilding is still taking place in Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., and parts of Detroit have only recently started their recovery.


Associated Press writers Brian Witte and Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report. Rosenberg reported from New York.


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