With plans ranging from reducing the number of vacant buildings to fixing broken water fountains to sprucing up city shrubbery, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer began a series of meetings yesterday aiming to turn around what he called "a general feeling of hopelessness" in Baltimore.
Mr. Schaefer, Baltimore's mayor from 1971 to 1987, met over breakfast at the Center Club with about a dozen former and current business leaders he invited in an Aug. 16 letter.
"In recent years the city has stopped its forward movement," Mr. Schaefer wrote. "There are more vacant houses, trash and dirt, crime, drugs, poor schools, movement of residents and businesses from the city. . . . Do we sit and watch the city lose its remaining leadership position and continue the slide into obscurity?"
Baltimore's visual and cosmetic appeal seems to be one of Mr. Schaefer's priorities. Both at yesterday's meeting and in his letter, he proposed "fix-ups" that would help the overall character of downtown, including fixing the escalator and fountain at the Charles Center and replacing missing ivy on Pratt Street.
"Our mission is very limited," said one participant at the meeting who asked not to be identified. "The question before the group was, 'Do you think we can accomplish anything?' The answer was we certainly can. So how do we go about it?"
The participant said the group is focusing on getting the downtown up to satisfactory level. The focus area lies between Penn Station and Federal Hill, effectively the same area covered by the Downtown Partnership which has been forced to be more preoccupied with safety issues, he said.
Other concerns were that city buildings be occupied, that shrubbery and landscape is well-maintained and tourists get a good impression of the city, he said.
Mr. Schaefer couldn't be reached yesterday. Some of his supporters said he was miffed at a story in The Sun last week that reported the meeting and its timing near the Democratic primary election between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
In the past, Mr. Schaefer has blamed the perceived ills of the city on Mr. Schmoke. Yesterday, Mr. Schmoke said he felt the formation of the Schaefer group was a thinly-veiled attempt to thwart his re-election.
"If [Mr. Schaefer] wanted to have a serious discussion of the future of the city I would think he could have done that earlier in the summer or after the primary," Mr. Schmoke said. "But to do it a couple of days before the primary, I think raises a lot of questions in people's minds.
"I don't think this helps. I think that most voters are going to respond to it as the former governor is just meddling again."
Marion W. Pines, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Study and a former member of Mr. Schaefer's mayoral Cabinet, said yesterday, "I don't think this had anything to do with the election."
She said Mr. Schaefer "is itching to think of some of these issues again. He's genuinely interested in the city and he wants to get the business community involved."
Some have said Mr. Schaefer, 73, has lost faith in the Greater Baltimore Committee, a coalition of the city's business interests. In his letter, he wrote that the GBC and other organizations are trying to turn the city's image around "but are hampered by a close association with the present administration."
Donald P. Hutchinson, head of GBC, said yesterday that he was not upset at Mr. Schaefer.
"I'm not concerned at all about the way the former governor referenced GBC," Mr. Hutchinson said.