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At a recent conference, leaders of the region's hottest businesses took to the stage to talk about why they like Baltimore.

One mentioned taking his daughter to the Hippodrome Theatre. Others shared their appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay. Many described exploring the city's different neighborhoods.

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Afterward, Debby Spear, a recent transplant who works at a consulting and accounting firm in the city, approached Tom Sadowski, CEO of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, the business group that organized the presentation.

"Thank you," she said. "I needed to hear that."

That exchange is part of a concerted charm offensive aimed at bolstering Baltimore's sagging image.

When the riots unfolded on national television in April, many in Baltimore knew the city faced serious work in repairing damage not only to property but to tourism, business, corporate recruitment and efforts to lure residents. Then a surge in violent crime further eroded confidence.

To change that narrative, the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders, has hired a public relations firm to highlight stories about Baltimore's emerging tech firms, world class universities, major real estate investments and a growing number of younger residents.

The Downtown Partnership, a business booster, has found its marketing materials about the city in demand from companies who share the information with prospective employees.

And Visit Baltimore has relaunched a $3 million national marketing campaign it suspended amid the riots, with ads in places like Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York. This fall, the convention and visitors bureau upped its efforts with a "Meet Local" campaign, at a cost of up to $40,000, that encourages businesses and residents to bring their next event to Baltimore.

Visit Baltimore has rolled out such campaigns during previous economic downturns, but it's especially important this time because of a decline in suburban day-trippers and weekend visitors, President Tom Noonan said.

"It's just perception and I think it's playing out more locally than it is nationally," said Noonan, who has personally appealed to people in the business community to bring corporate meetings or family events here.

Visits to restaurants, tourist attractions and cultural venues have fallen as much as 20 percent since the riots, according to Visit Baltimore. Downtown hotels fared better, with long-booked conventions and other group events, but they too are feeling the loss of leisure travelers.

The losses are likely to continue.

About one-fifth of Maryland residents outside the city told University of Baltimore pollsters in September and October they expect to visit Baltimore's restaurants, tourist attractions and cultural venues less frequently in the coming year than they had in the past 12 months. About 10 percent of Baltimore City residents said the same.

Just 6 percent of respondents from metro-area counties said they expect to visit Baltimore more, according to the poll.

"I think the biggest thing is that John Q suburbanite or Jane Q suburbanite, a suburbanite who's not inclined to enjoy spending time in this city or other cities, is just spooked," said developer Arsh Mirmiran of Caves Valley Partners, who is working on a new development near the sports stadiums. "I find it sort of offensive."

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Immediately after the riots sparked by Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody, economist Daraius Irani of Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute predicted their effect on the city's economy would be short-term. But now, as the number of homicides continues to surge, he expects more lingering damage.

"The ongoing killings really have brought a magnifying glass to the city and shown its seamier aspect, and I think people respond to that and get worried," he said. "The image of the city has taken a hit and it continues to take a hit, which makes it harder to sell itself."

More than 280 people were killed by the end of October — about 100 more than last year in the same period. Shootings are up 78 percent, while robberies have risen 15 percent.

In parts of the city that have long struggled economically, millions of dollars in grants have been promised, but there are few concrete signs the disparities highlighted by the riots are going away, said Louis C. Fields, head of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council.

"There hasn't been a lot of good news of late," he said. "It's affecting all of us in tourism."

Mike Pedone, chief operating officer of Sparrows Point Terminal, which is working to redevelop the 3,100 acres of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, said he gets fewer calls from prospective out-of-town partners worried about coming to the city. Still, he said, the impressions linger.

"I don't feel like it has continued at the same level of acuity … but it still creates sort of a negative background," Pedone said.

Sparrows Point Terminal, which is planning a logistics and manufacturing center, announced a string of new hires this fall — recruiting employees from Chicago and the West Coast. Many are impressed by the city once they visit, but persuading people the location is worth a look is key, Pedone said.

"What I worry about is people out there who have formed an opinion about Baltimore whom we never have an opportunity to interact with, so they sort of self select out," he said.

Corporate recruiter Steve Braun, CEO of MRI Search Consultants, said in the past he's had candidates turn down positions in Baltimore because they were scared by the city's reputation, forged by HBO's The Wire and other popular culture references.

But that hasn't happened since April, he said. People understand that what happened in Baltimore reflected problems that exist everywhere, he said.

Other institutions, such as the University of Maryland Medical System, and companies such as T. Rowe Price, said they've seen no unusual change in hiring or retention.

By many fundamental economic metrics — even those that took a hit in May and June — the city's story is positive. Home sales are up. Job creation has continued.

While growth in several economic indicators has slackened, it's hard to tease out a Baltimore-specific reason. Job creation across Maryland and the U.S. showed signs of slowing in late summer, amid global uncertainty and a jumpy stock market, while the housing market has been in recovery-mode for years.

For the businesses across Baltimore that are struggling, it's important to shore up public confidence in the city's future, said Charles Owens, president of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce.

"The mind prep is the piece that you're talking about and that has to happen," he said. "It has to be addressed from the top political leadership on down."

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Spear, the practice development manager at Gross Mendelsohn & Associates who went to the Economic Alliance annual meeting last week, said concerns about safety and business downturn in Baltimore have been discouraging and made her uncertain about city life.

The 54-year-old, who grew up in Baltimore County, moved to Hampden a little over a year ago after five years in Annapolis, wanting to cut down on her commute and be able to walk to restaurants and other amenities.

"I love Baltimore and now I'm like, 'What's going on in my city?'" she said, adding that the Economic Alliance presentation reminded the hundreds who attended of the good things happening. "Everybody here needed to see that."

Other areas have problems comparable to those in Baltimore, without its assets, Augie Chiasera, a regional president at M&T Bank, said in his remarks as board chair of the Economic Alliance.

But making a convincing case about Baltimore starts at home, he said.

"How many of you look for and really see all that is world-class about this community?" he asked the crowd. "How many of you can get past what you think you know so well, get past what you think you see, to start a new narrative about Baltimore?"

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