Downtown Baltimore adds jobs and residents

Downtown Baltimore added both residents and jobs last year, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the Downtown Partnership.

After finding that downtown employment declined in 2015, the report measuring the economic health of the blocks within a one-mile radius of Light and Pratt streets found the number of jobs rebounded last year to 122,242.

The downtown is viewed as the city's economic engine and holds nearly a third of the city's businesses and more than a third of its jobs. At a time when the city's population has fallen to a nearly 100-year low, the number of downtown residents inched up by about 500 to 42,861 people. The number of downtown residents has jumped 11 percent since 2007.

"There are other neighborhoods growing as well, but the hope is that others could grow as significantly as downtown," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "We need the entire city to be successful for downtown to be successful."

The nonprofit that works to improve the downtown joined with Mayor Catherine Pugh to release the report Wednesday morning during an event at the Hyatt Regency Hotel that featured a panel discussion about living downtown. The mayor said the job creation the partnership has worked to spur has contributed to the growth and stability of the city.

"Main Street corridors are important, neighborhoods are important, but the work you all have done in terms of growing our economy contributes to the net growth of our city," Pugh said, addressing business people at the event. "Downtown businesses are what our tourists see when they come to our city."

Housing occupancy in downtown dropped to 91.3 percent last year as two large residential projects were completed — apartment conversions on South Calvert and West Franklin streets that added more than 300 units. But Fowler said demand remains strong and many of the new residents are moving to downtown from out of state.

The employment gain — more than 3,500 jobs — came after a decline of more than 5,000 jobs in 2015, the first drop since 2011. The report lists health care and social assistance, public administration, and professional, scientific and technical services as the top three industry sectors, representing more than half the employment base for downtown

The report shows the office market downtown held steady, maintaining a 16 percent vacancy rate. Exelon moved into its new 450,000-square-foot headquarters at Harbor Point, joining Morgan Stanley as an anchor tenant. And the Army Corps of Engineers took over more than 160,000 square feet at 2 Hopkins Plaza.

"We know the downtown office market is incredibly diverse, and that's a source of our strength," Fowler said. "We're not reliant on one or two industries."

Downtown also has proved attractive to technology startups and businesses, he said.

At Spark, a collaborative workspace near the Inner Harbor designed for startups and entrepreneurs, the number of companies has grown from 22 to 93 since the space opened in January 2016.

"We're seeing the growth here," said Shervonne Cherry, community manager at Spark, which is expanding to an additional floor. "It's been a really busy year."

Downtown's hotel occupancy and revenues also improved after hitting a low point after the unrest of spring 2015, Fowler said. Hotel occupancy last year moved up to 67.6 percent, up from 66.1 percent in 2015 and outperforming hotels in the rest of the Baltimore area and nationally in occupancy and revenue.

The annual reports have been a way for the Downtown Partnership to track progress toward reaching a vision set more than two decades ago, said Jay Perman, the group's chairman and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The report this year was paired with studies on downtown development and economic impact.

"They frankly are proof positive that together, we're making the heart of our city economically stronger and more populous, and they are proof that when we strengthen the heart of Baltimore, the entire city benefits," Perman said during Wednesday's forum.

One of the biggest challenges in transforming downtown has been attracting retailers, Fowler said. Vacancy rates rose last year, partly because of closures in the Pratt Street pavilion at the Inner Harbor's Harborplace as it undergoes a renovation. Coming retail additions include a 50,000-square-foot replacement Whole Foods opening in a new location in Harbor East.

A 2012 downtown housing study showed the neighborhood could accommodate 5,000 new housing units over five years, of which 3,500 have been built, Fowler said.

"Our goal is to retain a lot of the people who've moved into downtown," he said, adding that it has become diverse, with nearly half of residents identifying as minorities. "The diversity there is incredibly strong, and it's a model for the rest of the city."

A panel of city residents, all of whom are Downtown Partnership board members, spoke during Wednesday's event about their experiences and some misconceptions about living downtown.

Ally Amerson said she was told when she moved to Charles Center four years ago that she would need to get a car. Instead, she said, she walks to work and the grocery store and also uses a bike-sharing program, light rail, metro or bus.

"There are plenty of options," she said.

Darah Okeke, who lives in a condo on Pratt Street near the Inner Harbor, said when her son was born in 2012, she listened to the advice of friends and family and moved to a suburban home in Columbia, renting out her condo.

"It just was a bad fit for us," she said. "It really didn't feel like home. We didn't have the same sense of community. It wasn't walkable, and there weren't as many options for culture."

Her family moved back to the condo, where she said they plan to stay. They are considering school options for their 4-year-old son, including public, charter, private or parochial schools.

"There are so many options here in the city," she said. "I think we've got a lot to choose from."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Partnership's State of Downtown

Residents

2015: 42,350

2016: 42,861

Employment

2015: 118,723

2016: 122,242

Office Vacancy

2015: 16 percent

2016: 16 percent

Hotel occupancy

2015: 66.1 percent

2016: 67.6 percent

Source: Downtown Partership of Baltimore

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