City is losing face, but keeping jobs Baltimore leaders lament departure of another headquarters


All over Baltimore yesterday, business and civic leaders were trying to put a positive spin on another bit of bad news for the city.

About the best they could offer: The merger between Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co., and the announcement that the headquarters of the newly created company would be located in the Annapolis area and not downtown, could have been a lot worse.

Few denied that the loss of another corporate headquarters from downtown Baltimore has at least symbolic significance, especially following as it does last winter's announcement that insurance giant USF&G; was moving from the Inner Harbor to Mount Washington. But most sought comfort in the fact that the new headquarters would be just a few miles away, and that the lion's share of the utility's 1,350 downtown workers would remain at the company's Charles Center office tower.

"It clearly is another bad thing for the city," said Robert C. Embry president of the Abell Foundation and a former city housing commissioner. "As bad as it is, it may be the best that could be hoped for."

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city's leading business group, said the headquarters move was not "cause for despair."

"The key element is preserving the 1,200 jobs," he added. "Annapolis is a partnering city for us. It would be far worse if they were going to take the corporate head quarters and move it to Fairfax, Virginia."

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, an organization of businesses to promote development and attract visitors to the central business district, called the loss of BGE headquarters a "temporary psychological blow."

"Would we prefer to have every headquarters in downtown? Absolutely," she said.

But the loss should be put in an overall context that includes recent decisions by venerable brokerage house Alex. Brown Inc. to stay in the city and Sylvan Learning Systems to relocate from Columbia to Inner Harbor East, just east of downtown, she said, as well as the fact that most of the jobs will stay put.

"While the loss of any corporate presence can hurt us symbolically, we are pleased we're not losing a major employer," Ms. Schwartz said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who was sharply criticized for the loss of thousands of jobs in the city during his tenure in the just-concluded Democratic mayoral primary, took that thought a step forward.

"We have got to adjust to the major changes in the world economy and view this as just a transitional event and not in any way the final chapter of our economy in Baltimore," he said.

But some City Council members who supported council President Mary Pat Clarke, who Mr. Schmoke beat by 20 points in the Sept. 12 primary, were not so philosophical.

Martin O'Malley, a 3rd District Democrat, called the consolidation "a blow for Baltimore."

"This is really bad, especially following USF&G;," he said.

"It's causing me alarm," added Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat.

"Slowly but surely we have been decimated of our corporate headquarters. What's next? What's left? Good God almighty."

Among the Baltimore corporate headquarters that have vanished in recent years are those of the Bank of Baltimore, Maryland National Bank and Union Trust Co., all of which were gobbled up, Pac-man style, by out-of-town banking giants.

Of the largest 15 publicly traded companies in the metropolitan area, only five will be headquartered downtown.

Among those concerned about the loss of corporate headquarters are arts and charitable organizations, which depend on corporate largess for support.

Last year, BGE gave some 1,600 grants worth $4.5 million to hospitals, cultural organizations and other nonprofits, a company spokeswoman said.

"It's always a concern for us" when corporate headquarters move, said John Gidwitz, executive director at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which numbers BGE as one of its "most important supporters." "I hope it would not have a negative effect."

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