Seven new storefronts are expected to arrive in Harborplace this summer as part of an effort to “level the playing field” for Baltimore’s small, Black-owned businesses, according to Shelonda Stokes, president of the city’s Downtown Partnership.

Stokes’ nonprofit, which advocates for businesses in the area, awarded the store owners of Cuples Tea House, Pandora’s Box Boutique, Morelife Organic Juices, Motion Athletics, Yele Stitches, Storybook Maze and Milton’s Daughters with $25,000 each in grant funding and two-year licenses to operate in the multimillion-dollar Inner Harbor development.

Each owner will also receive technical support from the downtown group — ranging from zoning assistance to marketing and accounting services — to help them take advantage of the new space, according to a press release.

“This is a very different version of BOOST than we have ever done,” Stokes said, referring to the organization’s Black Owned and Operated Storefront Tenancy program.

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In previous years, businesses were picked to fill vacancies in downtown corridors from Howard to Charles Street. But now, the tenants will be moving into twin waterfront pavilions that are largely empty, despite their prime location at the Inner Harbor, a tourist hot spot. Stokes said they plan to reassess the two-year tenancy with each storefront as the redevelopment of Harborplace continues.

“Most of the spaces that large are scaled for more commercial, larger retail,” said Monesha Phillips-Johnson, who operates Pandora’s Box in Federal Hill. “As a small-business owner, that’s a space you could only dream to be a part of.”

Phillips-Johnson remembers visiting the Inner Harbor as a child. She made a promise to herself at the age of 9 that one day she would own a business. But now, even with a long-running boutique jewelry and souvenir store under her belt, she never imagined opening up shop along the waterfront. That real estate seemed about a million dollars out of reach, she said.

When she opened Pandora’s Box, the business did a lot of “failing forward,” Phillips-Johnson said. Marketing was a sore spot for her, she said, and she lost money and time searching for ways to track her customer base and expand her reach. There were no Small Business Saturdays or popular social media accounts to give her a boost.

“I bootstrapped my business all the way up,” she said of her storefront, which has been in operation for more than two decades.

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Her business is among the older recipients of the grant, but Phillips-Johnson has admired the work of tea shop owners Lynette and Eric Dodson, whose Cuples Tea House, which acquired its first brick-and-mortar location in 2021, will also join her in Harborplace. She said she is excited to learn more about how the owners, who started their business almost a decade ago, have expanded their footprint. (The Dodsons did not respond to requests for comment Friday.)

“I’d love to build my own [business] collective one day,” Phillips-Johnson said. “I want to know what it takes to build out a commercial space from beginning to end, and how they put these pieces together.”

Stokes referred to the BOOST program as giving businesses a “leg up” after the rise of commercial vacancies during the pandemic disproportionately affected Black-owned businesses, which historically have had less access to capital, she said. The latest cohort is the third to receive the organization’s grant, which began in 2021.

“We want our BOOSTers to achieve new heights,” Stokes said. “We also know their success is crucial to the overall wellness of downtown.”

This story has been updated to clarify Shelonda Stokes’ position within the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

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