Korean-American grocers say they've been unfairly targeted

Plan could force many out of business

Dozens of Korean-American grocery store owners say they're being unfairly targeted by Baltimore City officials.

A new plan advocated by the city's health and planning departments would force stores that sell liquor in residential areas to move into commercial areas, or stop selling liquor.

The store owners, the majority of them Korean-American, say they can't afford either option.

"I still have the American dream, just like my parents," said Paul Lee, who owns a store in Northwest Baltimore.

Lee moved from South Korea to the United States in 1978, and became a US citizen a few years later.

Now, he runs a grocery and liquor store in an area that is zoned for residential use.  The last time the city "re-zoned" it was allowed to stay; now, the process is happening again.

This time, as city officials explained at a meeting on Wednesday, Lee and dozens of other store owners would have to get rid of their liquor license.

"Like 30, 40 percent.  If I lose my license, it's like 30 to 40 percent out of my store, income is losing," Lee said.

Or they could move their store to a commercial area.

"There are liquor stores already in there. Landlords? They're not going to put a liquor license in the same building!  It's impossible," Lee said.

Some city officials say getting rid of some stores will lead to healthier neighborhoods.  "We in the planning department are looking at zoning as another tool to help achieve some of these broader goals," said Tom Stosur, the head of the Baltimore City Planning Department.

City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young says the city should make some kind of concession to the store owners.  "I mean don't just take a person's livelihood and say, 'Hey- change your product' because what if people don't come and buy your fresh produce?  Is the health department going to come and buy it?" he said.

Paul Lee spends at least 13 hours a day at his store, six days a week.  He doesn't plan to quit without a fight.

"Everybody's having a hard time. They can't even go to sleep. One of my friends, he had a heart attack after he received the letter.  Think about it - they can just take away personal property, you know," he said.

There is another meeting with those grocery store owners set for next month; Lee says if the city continues with its plan to close stores or force them to move, they'll resort to legal action.

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