Bob Staab, a former state delegate from Dundalk, said the community has always been the butt of jokes.

"People in Dundalk were kind of looked down at because they were blue-collar," Staab said. "But it just made them that much stronger. And it made them stick together more."

He said many longtime residents have grown frustrated with blight, litter and a decline in home ownership. But he said the community has a lot to offer families, including active recreation councils and "shoreline after shoreline."

The Shaneys bought their big old house — it was once a hotel — as an investment. But they decided they wanted to move in themselves.

"We kind of fell in love," said Shaney, 40, a commercial real estate appraiser.

He sees other advantages, too. The taxes are lower than in the city, but it's still close to urban amenities.

Tom Maddux, a principal of the commercial real estate firm KLNB, said the perceptions cited by the consultants of Dundalk as "polluted and dirty" likely come from its industrial past — for decades, it was neighbor to the Bethlehem Steel mill in nearby Sparrows Point.

But for retailers, he said, the question of whether to invest depends not on perception, but hard numbers: population and income levels.

"The retailer won't necessarily have an opinion about the community," Maddux said. "Everybody in Baltimore has opinions about everything, but the retailer's just going look at the scientific view. They're not going worry about the reputation."

According to the most recent census figures, the median income in the community is $48,440. The county median is $66,068.

For Dundalk to attract upscale retail development, Maddux says, its population must grow.

"Retailing follows demographics and follows market demand," he said. "The Harris Teeter, Target, all the retailers at Canton Crossing would not have come there if the population on that side of town had not changed over the past 20 years."

The Dundalk Renaissance Corp. hopes incentives can help change the community. It plans to sponsor a housing fair in September at which prospective buyers can take narrated bus tours through local neighborhoods, talk to real estate agents and renovation contractors, and learn about the campaign's $5,000 Golden Key grants, which are intended to help people buy homes.

To qualify for a grant, applicants must agree to live in their home for at least five years, and earn more than 80 percent of the median income in the Baltimore region.

County officials have tried to highlight new development in the area, such as the Greens at Logan Field, a senior housing community, and renovations at Merritt Park Shopping Center and Merritt Manor Shopping Center.

The North Point Government Center is slated for redevelopment. Vanguard plans to build Merritt Pavilion with stores, offices and restaurants on Merritt Boulevard. The county school system opened the $101 million Dundalk High and Sollers Point Technical School at the start of the school year.

Developer Larry Rosenberg says the area's greatest asset is its "magnificent waterfront."

"I've always felt that this a tremendous amenity in Baltimore County that was not being utilized properly," said Rosenberg, president and CEO of Mark Building.

The company's new Village of Bear Creek features 39 townhouses, with amenities that include a marina, two-car garages and "sky top decks."

The gated community has attracted Dundalk natives, empty-nesters and some who have moved from Baltimore.