Dundalk sign

A sign on Dundalk Avenue welcomes visitors to the blue-collar community. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / June 3, 2014)

When Jeff Shaney and his wife bought their historic home last year, he says, his friends from Towson all asked the same thing.

"Why did you move to Dundalk?"

The waterfront community in Baltimore County has long suffered skeptics and detractors — it's been derided by some as "Dumb-dalk," and when a survey was conducted three years ago, people in the area described it in terms that were not pretty: Rats. Crime. Filth.

"If you've never been here, you may think the town is a dying steel plant — or now, a dead steel plant," said Amy Menzer, executive director of the nonprofit Dundalk Renaissance Corp. "It has a legacy as a working-class steel town. There's a lot of pride in that heritage, but also challenges."

Menzer's organization is trying to break stereotypes and attract families like the Shaneys to the community. In a new marketing campaign, the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. touts the community's 43 miles of waterfront, its history and its proximity to city attractions: It's a 10-minute drive to the Canton Crossing retail development, 15 to Camden Yards.

The $1.3 million campaign, funded by Baltimore County and the state, features grants to lure new homeowners, a website to help newcomers learn about Dundalk's 24 neighborhoods and a slogan intended to pique curiosity: "Live the unexpected."

"We want people to scratch their heads," Menzer said.

Patricia Paul, a local activist, says the campaign is out of touch with the community.

The website, unexpecteddundalk.com, features pictures of children playing near the water. But "the bottom line," Paul said, "is the water around here's not clean."

"They're selling our waterfront for the people who are ... more well-heeled than the people around here," she said. "I would hope that we're not setting the stage for more development along the waterfront."

The community of 63,000 suffers from poverty, environmental pollution and other challenges, Paul said. She wishes that more energy were being devoted to helping people who have lived in Dundalk all their lives.

"These other problems are very difficult to solve," she said.

The campaign's supporters say they hope to spark growth in Dundalk by capitalizing on its location and its affordable housing stock. They say Dundalk offers a difficult-to-find sense of community.

"It just has a feel almost like a Mayberry-type community where you see your neighbors and you know them by name," said Barbara Stokes. She bought a stucco house in Old Dundalk for $137,000 in 2008.

"I have the neighbor I can borrow sugar from," Stokes said. "You don't find that everywhere."

Stokes, an office worker at a commercial cooking equipment company, plans to become a "neighborhood ambassador" for the marketing campaign. The Dundalk Renaissance Corp. has hired marketing consultant Tracy Gosson, the former executive director of Live Baltimore, and former Baltimore City Councilman Jody Landers for the campaign.

The nonprofit hired an out-of-state consulting firm several years ago to ask area residents their perceptions of Dundalk.

Ian Symmonds & Associates of Portland, Ore., discerned "a palpable pride in the community." When people think of Dundalk, the consultants said, they think of hard work, the annual Fourth of July parade, and the community's long-running Heritage Fair.

But there was also the other side.

"Dundalk is thought of as being polluted and dirty with rats, drugs and a high crime rate," the consultants wrote in their 2011 presentation. "Perceptions of crime, pollution, lack of retail services and shopping, and the status of the education system, are very problematic for the community."