In the 1970s, it was the corporate office tower. In the 1980s, it was the festival marketplace.
But in the 1990s, the sports arena appears to be the new cornerstone for economic development, the foundation on which Baltimore and other cities are laying their hopes for revitalization.
More than a dozen communities throughout America are planning new baseball parks or other sports arenas -- many in key urban settings -- to keep team owners happy and to fulfill redevelopment goals at the same time. Among them: Denver, Cleveland and Arlington, Texas.
But starting this week, all eyes will be on Baltimore for the opening of one of the first projects to exemplify this trend -- Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"We're the only city and the only state that will open a new stadium this year. When you think about the number of jobs it will create and the number of people it will draw, it's great," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "What a wonderful, wonderful opportunity."
More than 3 million people are expected to pass through the turnstiles in Camden Yards the first season, a 20 percent increase above the average of 2.5 million people attending Memorial Stadium games in recent years. The ballclub also set a record by selling about 25,000 season tickets.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- a $106 million stadium that took nearly three years to build -- has been touted as the key to creating jobs, luring businesses, attracting conventions and other tourists, and generating publicity and excitement that will benefit Baltimore.
At the same time, the site may create traffic, congestion, and parking problems downtown. Some neighborhood groups have expressed concern about access to their streets and whether police and fire equipment will be hampered by traffic during games. Already, the city has imposed residents-only parking on the streets of such stadium-area neighborhoods as Otterbein, Ridgely's Delight and Federal Hill. Violators will be fined $52 -- double the normal rate.
However, the location of the new ballpark is seen as a positive in bringing more people to visit Inner Harbor attractions nearby and spurring development on the west side of downtown.
"It's going to help us fulfill our dreams not only on the athletic field but in the field of economic development," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "When you see the proposals that have come in for medical facilities, people movers, light rail, expansion of the convention center -- all that is because of the stimulus that comes from this project."
Orioles majority owner Eli S. Jacobs said: "Harborplace led the way. This is another step in giving additional life to downtown Baltimore. It's got to have a catalytic and galvanizing effect on city development."
The ballpark is also seen as a national model for a new kind of urban activity center for the 1990s and beyond. Planners believe it will set the standard for future hybrids of sports and entertainment in much the same way Baltimore's Harborplace pavilions influenced retail architecture 12 years ago.
"If it's done the way I think it will be, it will be another Harborplace," Mr. Schaefer said.
Amenities include a plush new "club" level of luxury seats and lounges and a wide variety of food and beverage outlets. They enable the park to function as a setting for private parties, whether a game is under way or not. Sixteen different places can be reserved for weddings, fund-raisers, and other events.
This combination of sports and entertainment puts Baltimore on the cutting edge of a trend in which team owners, having recognized that television and radio revenues are unlikely to get much higher, are pushing to find new sources of revenue to cover ever-increasing player salaries.
The ballpark is also seen as a vehicle for expanding the life of the city. By drawing up to 48,000 people downtown at night and on weekends, the ballpark is "extending the life of the city from a 40-hour pattern to an 80- or 90-hour pattern," Mr. Jacobs said. "This will generate a lot more activity."
As part of a package of attractions that includes Harborplace, the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, Oriole Park is expected to have greater impact than if it had been built off by itself.
Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Herbert J. Belgrad said the goal from the beginning was to make the stadium "an economic development project."
"People will come down early in the day to go to Harborplace or the aquarium or go with their family to the picnic area at the ballpark and then stay for the game," he said. "We wanted it to be a total experience."
With the official opening just a week away, planners expect Baltimore's ballpark to benefit the city and region in several ways. They see it as:
* A job center. More than 1,600 people will work on the stadium grounds on days when a game is scheduled. The largest employer is ARA Leisure Services, the food and beverage operator, which will have 1,100 "game day" employees at the ballpark -- 400 to 500 more than last year. After the baseball season ends, 75 to 100 employees are expected to continue work in the restaurants and meeting facilities that are open year-round.
The ballclub has 100 full-time employees and another 400 "game-day" employees, including ushers, ticket takers and field attendants.
* An urban development anchor: City and state officials see the ballpark as a catalyst for an economic development thrust on the west side of downtown. They point to plans for the proposed $600 million medical trade mart, including a 1,000-room hotel; the $150 million convention center expansion; plans to expand the campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and the possible headquarters for the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration.
Mr. Jacobs said he believes the ballpark will change the public's perception of downtown because it has enlarged its boundaries.
* A symbol of progress. "It's a powerful and significant image that's going to add to the identity of the city," said M. Jay Brodie, former city housing commissioner and a member of the panel that chose the lead architect, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum's Sports Facilities Group.
Mr. Brodie said the last "image-giving" building to open in Baltimore was the 11-year-old National Aquarium. He thinks the ballpark, too, "will appear on postcards and represent Baltimore to people in as strong a way as Harborplace and the aquarium did in their turns."
It's "a shot of adrenalin for the city," he added. "Cities need periodicin jections of adrenalin in an economic development sense . . . and Baltimore hasn't had one of those injections in a while."
* A tourist and media attraction. Planners say it will help generate a wave of national attention that will paint Baltimore as an urban success story and desirable tourist destination.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is also an attraction that the convention bureau and area hotels can use to market Baltimore to meeting planners, motor-coach travelers, church groups and others, said Wayne Chappell, executive director of the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association.
"It will put us on the map again as one of the cities worth visiting," said Joan Davidson, group marketing manager for The Rouse Co., which developed Harborplace. "In the early 1980s, we had so many people coming and saying, 'How did you do it?' That's what this will do all over again."
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
* The right-field foul pole from Memorial Stadium is being used at the new park.
* A 23,000-square-foot picnic area beyond the left-center-field wall will be able to accommodate up to 3,000 people.
* There are 18,000 lower-deck seats between the foul lines at the new stadium, 7,000 more than at Memorial Stadium.
* The MARC and light rail train stops are within 275 feet of the right-field wall.
* The top of the Oriole dugout will say "Home of the Orioles." The visitor dugout will be inscribed with "Welcome to Oriole Park."