Fence to enclose Baltimore's New Year's Eve celebration

Baltimore's free New Year's Eve fireworks are back this year, but with an added wrinkle: The Inner Harbor festivities will be encircled by a metal fence, with access restricted to nine points of entry during much of the celebration.

The fence, similar to what was used to enclose September's Grand Prix race, will be put in place Dec. 29, beginning at the waterline east of Rash Field and wrapping around the Inner Harbor before ending on Pratt Street adjacent to Pier 6. No metal detectors or additional security measures will be implemented this year, city officials said.

The restricted access comes after violence marred this year's July 4 celebration at the Inner Harbor. A man visiting from Alabama was fatally stabbed, and a 4-year-old boy was shot in the leg, despite the presence of nearly 600 city and state police officers.

On the heels of the July 4 incidents, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III promised a "top-to-bottom" review of security procedures. City officials Wednesday, however, played down the security aspect of the restricted access.

"I think it's just further tweaking of what we have already in place," said Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "It's not necessarily only for public safety, There really are a lot of factors involved … We want people to enjoy the event. We have to look at that holistically, not only from a police perspective."

The goal is to channel pedestrian traffic into certain areas and manage it, said Frank Murphy, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation. If too many people show up at one entrance gate, he noted, police will be able to re-direct people to another one that is less crowded. Police should also be able to better ensure an orderly exit from the celebration. Guglielmi would not comment on the number of police officers that will be present.

Col. Dean Palmere, the city Police Department's chief of patrol, said Baltimore is following the lead of other cities staging similar celebrations.

"We're not the first city to do this. It seems to work in other cities," he said. In New York, police have been aggressively managing traffic flow around the famous Times Square celebration for years.

Initially, the fence will include some 20 access points, to allow for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. On New Year's Eve, vehicular access points will be closed off at various times during the day, depending on the needs of area merchants. By the evening, revelers will have to get into the area through one of nine gates scattered along Key Highway, Light Street and Pratt Street.

This year's New Year's fireworks had been threatened with cancellation because of the city's continuing budget shortfall until a handful of businesses — including The Baltimore Sun, which is sponsoring the fireworks as part of the paper's 175th anniversary celebration — agreed to defray the costs. Details of the celebration were announced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Wednesday.

"Residents and visitors can expect a wonderful evening here in Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake promised, noting there will be more fireworks this year than last. The pyrotechnics will be launched from two barges anchored in the harbor beginning at midnight Dec. 31, and will include the year "2012" emblazoned in lights.

The annual New Year's Eve celebration is a major event for the city's tourist industry and Inner Harbor-area businesses. The 2009 celebration had an economic impact on the city of $6.9 million, according to Sam Rogers, executive vice president of Visit Baltimore. Last year's crowd in the Inner Harbor was estimated at between 30,000 and 45,000, with just under half hailing from outside Baltimore. Area hotels enjoyed a 95 percent occupancy rate for the evening last year, Rogers said. And many more Baltimore residents view the fireworks from a distance from decks and rooftops.

The 2011 Baltimore New Year's Eve spectacular will include a concert featuring the funk and soul group The 8 Ohms Band, beginning at 9 p.m. at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater, at Pratt and Lights streets. The fireworks display, produced by Pyrotecnico, will begin at midnight and last approximately 18 minutes.

The total budget for this year's celebration is more than $100,000, said Tracy Baskerville, a spokeswoman for the city's Office of Promotion & The Arts.