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Vision needed for Baltimore's neighborhoods

As the mayoral campaign nears September's primary election, it has been heartening to see an unusually robust debate among the principal candidates about how best to deal with the many economic and social challenges facing Baltimore City.

However, whether the topic is an unsustainable property tax rate, crime and the police, the public schools, the environment, jobs and economic development or housing, to some observers two things have been conspicuously absent from the conversation: the recognition by the candidates that these issues are not independent of one another if the ultimate goal is to improve and sustain Baltimore's neighborhoods; and, in that context, what a compelling, cohesive community development strategy for the city would look like. There is still time, though, for the candidates to share their visions for Baltimore's neighborhoods with the voters.

Developing and implementing a strategy to improve and sustain widely disparate neighborhoods would be complicated and difficult under the best circumstances. In recent years, diminished public funds and uncertain public policy have made it that much harder. Over the past 15 years or so, the private corporate, institutional and philanthropic sectors have of necessity created alternative initiatives of their own. Consider a few:

•Healthy Neighborhoods: Begun 10 years ago as a modest pilot program to strengthen neighborhoods in danger of tipping into decline, this program has raised and invested $40 million of largely private mortgage and home improvement funds in 15 of the city's key middle- and working-class communities. It is in the process of raising a second fund and more recently was awarded $26 million in federal money in a national competition to buy, rehabilitate and sell houses in communities hurt by mortgage foreclosures.

•Central Baltimore Partnership: a six year-old, unusual collaboration of universities, private property owners, neighborhood organizations, artists and Amtrak, designed to organize and coordinate the physical and human redevelopment of the now-burgeoning Station North/Charles North area, from Penn Station to 25th Street. To date, $200 million of redevelopment has been completed. Another $240 million is in the works.

•East Baltimore Development: an immensely complex, 15-year, $1 billion partnership of neighborhood groups, business leaders, local and national foundations and the Johns Hopkins institutions to redevelop 88 acres in East Baltimore, historically one of the poorest communities in the country, into an economically and socially vibrant place to live and work.

•Baltimore Integration Partnership: Living Cities, the nation's largest private community development funder — a consortium of national foundations, banks and insurance companies — last year selected Baltimore as one of five cities in a national competition to receive $19 million over several years to connect physical redevelopment and job opportunities with public transportation hubs.

To give city government its due, through several administrations it has been an active partner in each of these community development initiatives. The problem is that each is a one-off response to an opportunity or challenge somewhere in the city, rather than part of a larger, better-coordinated strategy that deploys the city's financial resources in ways that are predictable and increase collaboration and efficiency.

One could argue that these examples illustrate that a clear city-driven agenda and the infrastructure to support it are not all that important. But my long experience working in Baltimore convinces me that opportunistic, deal-driven community development is not a substitute for a strong mayoral vision and a clear strategy for achieving it. I believe the city's longer-term prospects for creating jobs and reversing its population decline would be greatly improved by this kind of strong executive leadership.

In a time of great financial and political uncertainty and budget cuts at all governmental levels looming, public-private partnerships become even more important to the city's future. Private investors require the certainty of an engaged, committed public-sector partner. A coherent community development vision of program and fiscal priorities and a structure to see them through would provide the sense of certainty that gives confidence to local government's essential allies and investors: neighborhoods, major educational and cultural institutions, businesses, and private developers from here and across the country. It's time to hear the candidates' plans for Baltimore's neighborhoods.

Timothy D. Armbruster is president and CEO of the Goldseker Foundation. His email is tdarmbruster@goldsekerfoundtion.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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