Baltimore Region: Weakness at the Core


What happens to the suburbs if the central city withers? What happens to the viability and vitality of a region when its heart stops beating?

These are the questions Baltimore-area leaders ought to be pondering -- and aren't. For in a very real sense, this region is nearing a time when those questions won't be hypothetical. Its ++ central core is wilting, slowly but surely. Yet those in command are looking the other way.

While the counties are prospering, the city continues to see businesses pull up stakes. No wonder. Crime is appalling. Public schools are in sad shape. Taxes are sky-high. Business leaders are gloomy about the future. And the city's political higher-ups seem incapable of pulling Baltimore out of this malaise.

By contrast, there are growth and jobs in the suburbs. The vast bulk of this state's citizens live there. They have enormous political clout.

Look at the Paul Tsongas landslide. He swamped Bill Clinton last March by appealing to suburban voters: He lost the two majority-black subdivisions, Baltimore City and Prince George's County, but buried his opponent in seven other big suburban counties.

The suburbs are in command. But what's their game plan?

The operative political philosophy seems to be "grab as much as you can for the folks back home." Little thought is given to what's best for the state or what's best for the region. All that matters is bringing back goodies for local constituents.

That's great short-term politics. It gets the "ins" reelected. That's of prime concern to suburban politicos.

All this brings us to the HCFA decision. HCFA is bureaucratic shorthand for the Health Care Financing Administration, the giant agency handling medical benefits, such as Medicaid and Medicare.

HCFA has outgrown its quarters at the Social Security complex in Woodlawn. It considered a downtown city site -- right across from the new ballpark -- and a suburban locale near its present headquarters.

The suburban location has big advantages. It is cheaper to build, since developers have lots of land. It will have acres of parking. It will have space for trees and a campus-style setting. HCFA employees comfortable with their current location won't be inconvenienced.

But what does a suburban site -- the eventual choice -- add to the region? Not much. As federal studies showed, the commercial spin-off from HCFA in the Woodlawn area has been minimal. It isn't likely to spur any further business development in the already congested area, either. In fact, the new HCFA locale probably will add immensely to traffic backups and a decline in the area's quality of life.

But it does keep HCFA jobs in Baltimore County.

That's why county politicians worked so hard to win the HCFA fight. The fact that a downtown site might mean more for the region long-term was never considered.

So the city winds up with a big hole in its downtown development plans. Its push to become a "life sciences" center is dealt a blow. HCFA headquarters would have fit in beautifully. It would have been in the midst of an exciting, evolving medical technology center -- and only 40 minutes from downtown Washington and federal VIPs.

For the region, this is the kind of opportunity that can't be missed. But it was.

No one spoke up for the city. Not even Mayor Kurt Schmoke -- not very loudly at any rate. Not Rep. Ben Cardin, who got the city into this bidding war, then retreated. Not Rep. Kweisi Mfume, whose city-based district desperately needs this kind of boost. Not Sen. Barbara Mikulski or Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who live in the city but took a walk. Not even Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the self-professed lover of Baltimore.

No one wanted to take on a cause that might prove unpopular in the heavy-voting suburbs. No one cared enough about the city to go out on a limb for Baltimore.

And no politician in the suburbs was about to come to the city's defense, either. These politicos give lip service to helping the city and to metropolitanism. In reality, they don't give a hoot about either.

It is, indeed, a depressing set of circumstances. No one in the suburbs has yet considered how the counties would cope without a central core city to act as the heart and soul of this region.

What happens when there's nothing of value left downtown? What becomes of the suburbs?

Do folks head for Dundalk or Pikesville or Glen Burnie or Ellicott City for cultural and sporting entertainment? Do big companies locate their headquarters in Bel Air or Westminster?

In other words, what happens to the Baltimore region if there's no Baltimore?

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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