Since 1989, Baltimore has lost more than 65,000 jobs, including nearly a third of its retail base. While many of the lost manufacturing jobs are unlikely to return, the retail sector can and must be revived. Among the top priorities of the next City Hall administration should be the development of a retail strategy for Baltimore.
Such a strategy is important for several reasons. Shops produce jobs. Varied shopping adds to the vitality of neighborhoods, making them desirable places in which to live.
It is intolerable that huge numbers of Baltimore residents are forced to travel to the surrounding counties simply to buy essentials because there are virtually no department stores or even home repair centers within the city limits.
Studies show that few people shop where they work. Studies also show that people want mixed and affordable shopping opportunities near their homes. If cities historically developed around the places where people worked -- the harbors, mills and rail yards -- the suburbs have coalesced around the malls where people shop: Columbia, Owings Mills, White Marsh. Baltimore City must encourage retail development if it wants to be competitive in the marketplace for new residents.
Marketing experts are beginning to recognize the tremendous buying power within cities, even poor ones. Aggressive pharmacies such as Rite Aid, Revco, CVS and NeighborCare are tapping that potential. They are carving out niches by providing home delivery services or building branches that no longer emphasize traditional drug-related supplies but are modern-day general stores.
"The needs and preferences of the inner city market can vary greatly," says an article in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Many smart national and regional retailers have begun tailoring their urban stores to cater to the specific desires and income levels of the surrounding neighborhood. City Hall needs to encourage such "micromarketing." It could be the salvation of struggling retail corridors from Greenmount Avenue to Eastern Avenue.
During his eight years as mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke has not done a good job of retaining and attracting jobs. His challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, is making an issue of this, although she has drawn her support in the past more from labor than the business community.
The next mayor must redouble efforts to make companies, large and small, feel at home. The city especially ought to encourage niche businesses -- craft producers and specialty shops, for example -- to locate here: They draw clients from the entire region. It is time to recapture the tax dollars and jobs being lost every time a city resident is forced to travel to the counties to buy household goods.