Deal helps Schmoke quiet critics


For Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the decision by Alex. Brown Inc. to keep its headquarters downtown couldn't have come at a better time.

The official announcement yesterday by the Baltimore old-line investment banking firm follows months of intensive criticism of the city's economic development efforts and the mayor's relationship with the business community.

It was the city's third business coup within a week, coming after an announcement that famed AIDS researcher Robert C. Gallo had agreed to bring his laboratory to West Baltimore and a dedication of a new warehouse by sporting goods giant Fila USA Inc. on the east side.

"This is cause for great celebration," said Michael A. Conte, director of regional economic studies at the University of Baltimore. "It brings a spirit that people haven't seen and experienced in five years."

The flurry of positive news offers Mr. Schmoke tangible economic triumphs to brag about in his tussle for a third term with City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. As recently as three weeks ago, the mayor, who is now enjoying some success in creating and retaining jobs in his employment-starved city, was being castigated by critics for threatening the lucrative tourism business by disbanding the convention board.

Mr. Schmoke cited several smaller-scale projects, including the opening of a Home Depot in Highlandtown and a Rite Aid in Sandtown-Winchester, as further evidence of the city's economic vitality. "I think some of the work we have done in the economic development area has gone unheralded," he said.

For her part, Mrs. Clarke applauded Alex. Brown's decision to keep 920 well-paid professionals downtown by leasing at least five floors of the Commerce Place skyscraper. But, standing yesterday in front of the vacant Steve's Supermarket in Federal Hill for a news conference on her plans to rebuild the city's job base, the two-term council president said much more needed to be done to revitalize neighborhood commercial districts.

"We've got to hold on to jobs everywhere, not just the ones that are on the front-page, but the Steve's of the world," she said.

Specifically, Mrs. Clarke said she would reinstitute a separate mayoral advisory council on small business and set up a commercial revitalization division within the city's housing department.

And she continued to attack Mr. Schmoke's record on economic development, pointing out that Baltimore has lost more than 60,000 jobs since 1989 and saying that the city has lagged behind surrounding counties in getting back on its feet after the recession of the early 1990s.

"We alone have not recovered," she declared.

Indeed, figures released yesterday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the metropolitan area added nearly 15,000 jobs in 1994 but that the city actually lost 2,900 jobs. Still, the city's job decline was the lowest in five years -- in absolute numbers and in percent change from the previous year.

"What we're seeing is moderation in the rate of decline. That's very different than robust growth," noted the University of Baltimore's Mr. Conte, adding, "The city may actually pick up some jobs this year."

Some business leaders likewise sought to put in perspective the triumvirate of recent high-profile economic developments. They pointed out that Alex. Brown's decision came after the city's economic development agency nearly botched the negotiations to keep the firm downtown and after insurance giant USF&G; announced that it would move 700 workers from its Inner Harbor tower to its Mount Washington campus.

"I don't think anyone would want to measure either negatively or positively based on one week, especially with Alex. Brown, where the situation has been going on for months," said Richard Sullivan, a former chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) who runs a company designing and manufacturing machine tools in Gardenville.

Others agreed with Walter Sondheim, a GBC consultant who negotiated with Alex. Brown on behalf of the city.

"It's a good thing for the city, and what's good for the city is good for the mayor," Mr. Sondheim said. "People tried to read a great deal into the USF&G; move, so I would hope that they do the same here."

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