A colleague who organized the recent editorial cartoonists' convention in town reported that the visitors had a splendid time in Baltimore. "They'd expected so little," he explained.
Alas, Charm City still suffers from a touch of the inferiority complex that afflicted it for many years. (The pursuit of NFL football to replace the Colts hasn't helped the old ego, either.) But if Baltimore's self-esteem ever needs a pick-me-up, consider that no other American city has hit the tourism trifecta this city has over the past decade and a half:
* Harborplace, which turned 15 years old this month, outdoes all the other festival marketplaces run by the Rouse Co. It draws more visitors than similar attractions in New York, Boston or Atlanta despite being among the smallest and oldest.
* Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the third smashing success, another project that transcended bricks and mortar. They planned a ballpark and it became a revolution, causing other cities to rethink the impact of sports stadia on their communities and economy.
Measuring the impact of these projects would be trying to count clouds. The prestige they have brought to Baltimore, their domino effect on other investment downtown, the psychological lift they provide to the whole region can't be underestimated. We are certain that the emerging Columbus Center for marine study and the proposed children's museum, also near the harbor area, will turn heads, too.
Some will point to the dysfunction in Baltimore neighborhoods and question the benefits of all these projects. The better question, however, is where would Baltimore be without them? Development is not a zero-sum game. The problems that confront Baltimore away from the harbor are rooted in social problems that transcend any one city: drugs, family breakdown, the service economy shift. Harborplace, the National Aquarium and Oriole Park are monuments to the fact that this community has had the vision and will to reach success on a global scale. If we can employ that imagination and focus throughout this 198-year-old city, there's no telling what can be accomplished in Baltimore's third century.