Can the Flower Mart be the Flower Mart away from Mt. Vernon Place? If its years in exile at Charles Center during the 1970s are any yardstick, the answer is not encouraging.
We hope the Women's Civic League will reconsider its plans to move this grandmother of Baltimore's civic festivals from the cobblestones of Mt. Vernon to the comparatively antiseptic surroundings of the War Memorial Plaza. We also hope the Schmoke administration gives serious thought to ways of shoring up the festivals and celebrations that are intangible but essential factors in the health and vibrancy of the city.
Since 1970, when the success of the City Fair began to lure crowds back downtown after the 1968 riots, Baltimore has been a leading practitioner of the art of the urban festival, those occasions when public spaces become stages for celebrating the diversity and vibrancy of city life. In recent years, the festival scene has had its successes -- Artscape is a prime example -- but also disappointments. Changing venues and dwindling crowds took their toll on the City Fair, which closed after the 1991 event. Changes in city fees for festival sponsors two years ago prompted much criticism; some events moved to the county. Since then, the Schmoke administration has attempted to work more closely with festival organizers. Now, however, it's fair to wonder whether the city is being too eager to help the Flower Mart leave Mt. Vernon. After a rainout this past May, the Women's Civic League says it needs more profits from the event and is ready to accept the city's offer of the War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hill.
But can lemons with peppermint sticks retain their quaint charm in that new setting? For many people, the Flower Mart and Mt. Vernon Place are synonymous. Moving the event is tantamount to closing it. That may well be the wiser course if the Women's Civic League is no longer up to the job. That would clear the way for other groups -- perhaps merchants and those with a vital interest in the health of the Charles Street corridor -- to reinvent the Flower Mart.
Festivals aren't cheap. For its part, the city contributes the work that goes into maintaining and erecting booths, the electricians who wire the event, the crews who set up equipment or redirect traffic -- not insignificant expenses. The sponsoring organizations shoulder a heavy burden as well, in contributions of time, energy and up-front money. But the pay-off, especially for the city, cannot be reckoned only in dollars and cents. Who remembers, or cares about, the profit-loss figures of those early City Fairs? The bottom line that counts can be seen in the sweep of the new Inner Harbor, unimaginable before those fairs brought the impossible within reach.