Survey reveals Dundalk's reputation: rough, with water views

Lifelong Dundalk resident Scott Holupka has heard the jokes. He's heard Dundalk residents stereotyped as some "combination of Archie Bunker and a West Virginia hillbilly," the community knocked as dirty, industrial and smelly.

Much of that perception is outdated, or vastly oversimplified, said Holupka, a founding board member of Dundalk Renaissance Corp. The nonprofit has unveiled a study showing that the peninsula in southeastern Baltimore County — historically a working-class section of many neighborhoods — is well thought of for its proximity to Baltimore, its waterfront, affordable houses, small-town atmosphere, July Fourth parade and other displays of community pride.

Still, image problems linger for the former home of Bethlehem Steel. When asked about the disadvantages of living and working in Dundalk, people from the Baltimore area who responded to a survey often mentioned crime, the unhealthy residue of its industrial past and the area's bad reputation.

"The perception is that of a filthy, dirty place," said one of 19 people interviewed by Ian Symmonds & Associates, a marketing and brand consultant in Portland, Ore. "The smell is unbelievable and the water is polluted."

Another interview subject said the area "is associated with drinking and loose women; it isn't known for a professional population."

However, when asked about the area's bad rap, one interviewee said, "I don't think it is warranted. I think Dundalk is quite engaging."

The 55-page report — discussed publicly Wednesday night for the first time at the annual meeting of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. — "shows we've got a ways to go," Holupka said.

The organization formed in 2001 hopes to use the study as one step in a campaign to draw homebuyers and businesses to Dundalk, a peninsula with the Back River to the northeast and the Patapsco to the southwest that is home to about 60,000 people. The area's fortunes fell with the decline of, among other manufacturers, Bethlehem Steel, which went bankrupt in 2001, has since been sold four times and in the spring had fewer than 2,000 employees. At its peak in the 1950s, about 30,000 people worked there.

Amy Menzer, executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., said the report "underscored some of the challenges we know to be the case," but also showed "the strengths we can build upon." It's part of a process to find out "who are the persuadables?" said Menzer. "Who might we convince to move here?"

Her office sits in a red-brick cluster of stores that took shape in the first third of the 20th century, just east of Dundalk Avenue, a main thoroughfare along the southern part of the peninsula. Named a National Register Historic District in 1983, this neighborhood of some 900 homes, tree-lined streets, trim lawns, grassy parks and ballfields hardly fits a common image of gritty Dundalk.

It's part of the story that usually gets left out in favor of the stereotype, said Holupka, who grew up in this part of the peninsula and still lives in Dundalk. He holds a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University and works in its Institute for Policy Studies.

"It's not that some of the perceptions aren't true, they're just not complete," said Holupka, emphasizing that Dundalk is about the size of Frederick, not the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden, as many seem to think. The challenge, he said, is "not so much to counter the images, but to let people know there's more going on."

Bob Rytter, a member of the corporation board who grew up in Dundalk, said, "What you don't hear about is the families that love being in the Dundalk area. … The pride in the community is very strong in Dundalk. That's one of the things we can use to revitalize the area."

The organization plans to take the consultant's advice and launch an Internet campaign featuring videos of people talking about their experience living there.

"Dundalk needs to define itself — through people, pride, and heritage — rather than have perception shaped by others," the report said.

The report treats the area almost as if it were a product, with recommendations about "positioning strategy," and pages devoted to analyzing the population according to an array of 67 demographic categories. The consultant sees Dundalk as potentially attractive to young, immigrant couples termed "urban achievers"; young, middle-class singles and couples called "young influentials"; and members of the "bohemian mix," progressive urbanites who prefer "funky rowhouses and apartments."

The report recommends that the area be promoted to prospective homeowners looking for good value and those hoping to "get in on the ground floor" of a redevelopment. A two or three-bedroom home away from the waterfront in Dundalk would probably sell for $160,000 to $225,000, a rowhouse for under $150,000, said Rob Carfagno, a former corporation board member and former Realtor. A waterfront house would probably sell for up to $350,000, he said.

To understand how potentially influential people in the Baltimore area see Dundalk, the consultant identified 830 people identified as "opinion leaders" and "organizational leaders" in business, government and community life, said the consulting firm president, Ian Symmonds. The report said 153 people responded to the 27-question survey on the Web and 19 of them were interviewed in greater depth.

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