It's a small property tied to the fate of a much bigger one.
The Inner Harbor merry-go-round, which has struggled for years, sits next to Rash Field, a roughly 7-acre expanse of volleyball pits and muddy field ringed by gray concrete, that city and civic leaders have long dreamed of turning into a bigger, better attraction.
The basic plan for the field — to build an underground parking garage and place a park on top — was proposed by a team hired by the city in 1994. It has reappeared in similar guises at least four times since, racking up hundreds of thousands dollars in planning fees, before retreating each time for lack of funding and support.
That record is one reason the former operators of the carousel were not surprised to learn that the company that replaced it with a new machine had received a new, more forgiving lease — one that acknowledges that the ride won't be a big money-maker.
"The carousel is not an attraction that's going to bring people to the city," said Stacey Daft, whose family ran the merry-go-round for decades before being forced out in 2012 because of unpaid rent. "It's a very small piece of property. If you want to solve the overall problem ... there's a lot of things that need to be relooked at."
In some ways, the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, which put Baltimore on the map in the 1980s, hasn't stopped, with enough investment in the past decade to make other neighborhoods jealous.
Additions include the $4.5 million visitor's center, the $2 million West Shore Park, the $1.2 million Walter Sondheim Fountain, floating wetlands and the $2 million Pierce's Park. There's also new landscaping along Pratt Street.
But even as other, smaller plans come to fruition, larger investments have lagged. The struggles of the carousel, some say, speak to the limits of smaller projects and the need for bigger moves to change the dynamic of the south side of the waterfront.
"The location is a challenge," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the private Waterfront Partnership, launched in 2005 in response to calls to spruce up the Inner Harbor. "One big reason why we're anxious to get the Rash Field Park developed is to create more reasons for people to use the entire harbor, including the south shore."
In recent months, efforts on two important parts of the Inner Harbor appear to have gained momentum. The new owners of the Harborplace pavilions face a 2015 deadline to upgrade awnings, lighting and landscaping along Pratt and Light streets. Private donors, including T. Rowe Price, have begun to come forward with money to help finance the $3.5 million demolition of the fountain at McKeldin Plaza and replace it with a grassy park, while the city studies a more ambitious plan to reroute traffic to link the square more securely to the promenade. Fundraising is also underway for a temporary ice rink at the plaza.
The Greater Baltimore Committee has pushed for investment in the Inner Harbor and helped fund the "Inner Harbor 2.0" master plan released in November.
"Sometimes you can't let things stay in their current state. You've got to be upgrading your assets or you're going to see them [fall] into decline," said GBC President Donald C. Fry. "This is a significant transformational effort that is critically important for the city to move forward. I don't know that ... just by placing a new carousel there rather than the old carousel is going to make that transformational change."
Inner Harbor 2.0 identifies a new park and garage for the Joseph H. Rash Memorial Park as a top priority. But the price is high: Estimates this spring placed the cost at $32 million to $40 million.
If the two projects were to be developed together, work on the more costly garage would have to start first. The field, unlike other parts of the Inner Harbor, is at a distance from corporate offices, making it potentially more difficult to attract private sponsors.
"The carousel situation speaks volumes about the need to do something over at Rash Field," said City Councilman William H. "Bill" Cole, who represents the area. "Rash is a bit more challenging in the grand scheme of things because you can't really phase that one" in.
Moreover, despite consensus on paper about a park, not everyone sees a need for major change. The field, which opened in 1976 as an athletics facility for a nearby high school, supports an active constituency of volleyball players, a league that has grown from 30 teams in 2001 to the current 700, with some 2,500 people using the field each week. Neighbors say benches around the memorial to the Pride of Baltimore draw readers every night.
Disagreements between backers of a long-term plan and those who are calling for smaller improvements stalled previous efforts, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, former head of the Baltimore Development Corp.
A solicitation from the city in 2011, for example, drew nine proposals for additional attractions, including a zip line, expanded volleyball courts, and a Ferris wheel, which were quietly dismissed for bad timing, limited appeal or poor taste.
"I don't mean there was violent disagreement, but you want consensus at least conceptually," Brodie said. "I think everyone who sees Rash Field today says, 'Isn't it a shame it isn't more attractive, it isn't more used, it isn't more of a great front yard for the city?' but I don't know what sort of consensus there is beyond that."
Amid the indecision, some say, smaller investments that might make a difference haven't happened — adding bathrooms, for instance, fixing leaky irrigation systems, or installing a concession stand to supplement the carousel income.
"There are some inherent challenges, but they're not unfixable," said Daft, whose family operated the antique carousel for more than 30 years. "That's why it was so disheartening for us."
Charm City Carousel, which launched in August, approached the city last fall about a new lease. Instead of a $50,000 annual rent, the agreement approved this month requires the company to pay the city $10,000 each year, plus 25 percent of the gross revenue between $40,000 and $250,000. It would pay 30 percent of gross revenue above $250,000.
Director of operations Mark Rosenzweig said the company started its season late last year and needs time to re-establish its presence. He declined to discuss ticket sales, saying he has been pleased with revenue from the $3 ride so far. He did not point to the surrounding area as an excuse.
"We're more wanting to prove ourselves as successful operators," he said. "We take a lot of pride in the operation, and we want to see it sustain and maintain itself and continue to serve the community."
The operators could be about to get a boost. Fry said he believes the Inner Harbor 2.0 plans for Rash Field have started to gain traction. Relocation discussions with the volleyball league have begun, with the city eyeing Middle Branch Park in Westport. The General Assembly signed off on $2 million in funding, while a six-year capital improvement plan approved by the Planning Commission in February calls for $2.25 million to $3.5 million each year.
If the public sector is on board, he said, private dollars will follow.
"For the first time, you actually see directions and dollars headed to that project," Fry said. "Previously, it was all conceptual, and now it's moving."