Acknowledging that too many businesses have left Baltimore’s Central Business District for competing neighborhoods, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore unveiled a promotional campaign Tuesday night aimed at attracting and retaining more companies in the city’s core.
The “Double Down on Downtown” initiative will launch with the intention of keeping existing businesses where they are and enticing new ones to the district. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it is bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the west, Franklin Street to the north, President Street to the east and the Inner Harbor area to the south.
The campaign, supported by a local advertising agency and current downtown-based business leaders and owners, follows more than a year and a half of uncertainty and tumult in the commercial real estate realm as workers shifted to remote jobs and urban centers faced declines in foot traffic and in-person shopping amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Downtown Partnership President Shelonda Stokes said the campaign will drive the message that the Central Business District has all the components of a thriving city — from government and health entities to sports, arts, entertainment and academic facilities all within a 1-mile radius — but hasn’t met its potential.
“Shift happens,” Stokes said during remarks at the Downtown Partnership’s annual event. “There’s been a shift. Businesses are going to Harbor East, to Harbor Point, Port Covington. And all of that is OK. It’s staying in the city, which is great. But we have to protect the core, as well.”
Stokes said much of downtown’s decline occurred before the pandemic, with some companies choosing to opt out of their leases for newer or cheaper parts of Baltimore. But the public health crisis accelerated the shift, she said, with employment falling and office vacancies jumping.
Some of that can be attributed to downtown’s concentration of hotels, Stokes said, as travel, conferences and conventions ground to a halt and employment throughout the tourism industry fell.
But downtown’s residential population has remained stable throughout the pandemic and it is one of Baltimore’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, said Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, during a virtual event Tuesday morning with city business leaders.
Since 2010, downtown’s population has actually grown 61%, Milli told the Greater Baltimore Committee, attributing that growth to increased housing stock. She said it could serve as a model for other neighborhoods looking to reverse population loss and offers a blueprint for downtown’s future.
“Downtown grew very intentionally through a housing development strategy,” Milli said. “Could we replicate what’s happening in downtown? Could we grow our population through a housing-first strategy? I’m excited to say that the answer is yes.”
But such positive gains in Baltimore often go unnoticed, Stokes said, which is why the partnership sought to launch the promotional campaign. It will roll out in tandem with several other initiatives meant to beef up the city’s commitment to its urban core, she added.
On Tuesday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott signed a bill into law that would create a special district in downtown Baltimore that may pave the way for digital and video signage. Stokes, who co-wrote the legislation along with the City Council’s Eric Costello and Robert Stokes, said this would add light, branding and vitality to the district.
Stokes also has led the partnership’s BOOST program, which connects Black-owned businesses with funds to renovate vacant storefronts downtown and other resources.
Several new developments are coming downtown aimed at revitalizing the area and connecting it better to adjacent neighborhoods.
As the new Lexington Market nears completion, a development team is hoping to break ground on the neighboring “Superblock” by the end of next year. The proposed mixed-use development at the former five-and-dime store district, called the “Compass,” is bordered by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue at the direct center of the city. Previous plans for its overhaul have stalled and languished due to litigation and other delays.
Another development team, with ties to NBA star Kevin Durant, is working on redeveloping downtown’s Royal Farms Arena, long considered cramped and antiquated for a major metropolitan performance space.
Meanwhile, some 3,300 state employees will soon descend on the city after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan moved to relocate them from the aging state office complex known as State Center less than a mile northwest of downtown. The Republican governor framed the move as “a shot in the arm” for the downtown economy, and state officials have begun soliciting bids for leases.
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Directly south of downtown, a new, sprawling entertainment district is underway, which aims to bolster the declining revenues at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore and provide more connectivity to the neighboring M&T Bank Stadium with a new Topgolf facility, concert venue, and more retail and dining options.
Dick Cass, president of the Baltimore Ravens, said during his remarks at the Downtown Partnership’s event that the team supports the district’s development, adding that it will strengthen the organization’s ability to bring fans to games.
“We’re working on plans for the renovation of the stadium ... and planning on creating a brand-new plaza to connect us to the new entertainment district,” Cass said. “We’re competing not only with other teams in the league, but also we’re competing with the alternative: people staying home and watching the game on their couches, and that just doesn’t work for us.”
Baltimore City lawmakers also pledged to help more businesses move to downtown with more competitive incentives. Scott and the City Council moved Tuesday to renew three tax credits set to expire that give monetary benefits to those who rehabilitate historic properties, those who build new rowhomes or redevelop existing ones, and those who convert commercial office buildings into apartments.
The mayor and City Council also announced plans to create a tax credit review committee to evaluate existing incentives and propose new ones, which Stokes will co-chair.
Ultimately, Stokes said her job is to reclaim downtown’s identity as a “destination of choice.”
“We know that we need to create a sense of place for downtown,” she said. “We really need to focus on the core.”