Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, inaugurated this week for her first full term, is making it her mission to increase Baltimore's population by 10,000 families during the next decade. It is a worthy framework for every decision she will be called on to make in the months and years ahead, as it serves as a quantifiable proxy for the central question of her leadership: Can she make Baltimore a better place? If you could wrap into one metric all the challenges of the city — crime, poor schools, drug abuse, high taxes, vacant property, unemployment, poverty, and so on — the population issue would be it.
It is heartening to see Ms. Rawlings-Blake put an exact figure on her goal, one that would be historic — after all, Baltimore's population has been in decline, sometimes rapid, for more than half a century — and achievable. Baltimore County, for example, grew by nearly 17,000 households in the last decade, putting growth of 10,000 families, or about 22,000 people, within the realm of possibility for the city.
The mayor did not launch her new term with a 10-point plan, or anything of the sort, for achieving this goal, and it is not necessary that she provide one. Nor should she appoint a task force to study the issue, a tactic she has employed all too frequently on issues large and small, with little so far to show for it. What she needs to do, above all, is to convince people that things are getting better in a way that years of gradual progress on the homicide rate and student test scores have not.
This doesn't require changing the national or international perception of the city from the Baltimore seen in "The Wire" to the one that served as the backdrop for the Grand Prix. All it would take is a slight reversal in the usual pattern of people moving into and out of Baltimore. The IRS tracks where individuals file their tax returns from year to year and the number of exemptions they claim, providing a rough sense of how many people move into and out of a given jurisdiction. During each of the last six years, the IRS has reported data corresponding to about 27,000 people moving into the city but 31,000 moving out. Persuade just a small percentage of them to stay, and the mayor's goal will be achieved.
In her inaugural address, Ms. Rawlings-Blake acknowledged the limitations on the ability of the city government — or even the state or federal government — to make this population growth happen. The massive urban renewal projects of the past did not reverse the city's decline, and in any case, government doesn't have the resources today to engage in such pursuits.
The mayor was quite right to urge city residents to "pitch in and do your part" to make Baltimore a success; after all, achieving her goal will require 10,000 small decisions from individual families, not a big one by her administration. It will require parents to trust the progress being made by the city schools. It will require communities to band together to eliminate the conditions in which crime has flourished. It will require entrepreneurs to invest in creating jobs here, and it will require homeowners to believe that they get something in return for the property taxes they pay.
But the mayor bears a great responsibility for creating the conditions in which all that is possible. She can help parents decide to stay in the city if she makes her proposal for city school construction and renovation bolder and more innovative, and she can support the kinds of reforms schools CEO Andrés Alonso is pursuing by lobbying the legislature for a stronger charter school law. She can work to eliminate the disincentives Baltimore's sky-high property taxes present to those who would invest in improving their homes — her opponents in the Democratic primary had plenty of ideas on that front. She could make a serious effort at streamlining the overlapping and confusing regulations that stymie business owners. And she could work to make more efficient a government workforce that's nearly twice as large as that in Baltimore County.
And while Ms. Rawlings-Blake is right that Baltimore can't expect leaders in Annapolis or Washington to swoop in with cash to bankroll the city's transformation, other leaders in the region and state should realize that they, too, have a stake in the success of her efforts. The Baltimore area's population is expected to continue growing, and that growth is coming at an increasing cost for suburban jurisdictions that are forced to invest more in new roads, schools and other infrastructure to support it. The $2 billion the state just spent to build the Intercounty Connector is proof of just how expensive it can be to accommodate growth in areas that don't already have the facilities to handle it.
About 620,000 people now live in Baltimore City, but it once had a population of nearly 1 million. Though it is unlikely to approach that again, it can certainly handle a substantial share of the new households expected to move to the area, at a much lower cost than the suburban counties can. It would make sense for county executives to get behind Gov. Martin O'Malley's PlanMaryland effort, which would help improve the economic conditions for redevelopment. It might even be time for them to consider greater regionalization of some services.
But even if the goal of 10,000 more families in Baltimore isn't one that the mayor can achieve on her own, it is also an endeavor that cannot succeed without her strong leadership. So far, Mayor Rawlings-Blake has cultivated an aura of quiet competence, and that will certainly be necessary in the years ahead. But so will the presence of a highly visible, outgoing leader whom the city and region can identify with and rally behind. Ms. Rawlings-Blake is asking 10,000 more families to make a bet on the city's future, and for that to work she needs to convince them that she is taking Baltimore in a new direction. It's been a dozen years since a mayor gave this city a real shake-up. It's time for Ms. Rawlings-Blake to do it again.