Revving up the downtown engine


IN THE past year more than 80 businesses have moved into downtown Baltimore, renewed their leases or expanded.

Thousands of conventioneers have descended upon Baltimore's new Convention Center. Major attractions and cultural institutions like the National Aquarium have seen attendance rise. And health care facilities like the University of Maryland Medical System, Mercy Medical Center and Maryland General Hospital have all completed major expansions.

All of this is great news for the center city, with a changing downtown becoming more than a business center but also a center of tourism, entertainment, education and health care. What's especially significant is that companies, institutions, conventions and visitors are choosing downtown as their destination or location.

The even better news is that these economic engines now driving the downtown economy are just revving up.

Major new attractions like the Power Plant and Port Discovery Children's Museum are in the pipeline.

University Center is in the midst of a $500 million capital expansion program.

And new development in Inner Harbor East is expanding the business district along the waterfront.

A place we want to be

Still, important choices must be made if downtown is to be truly revived.

Increasingly, due to technological advances, companies no longer have to be downtown. Convention planners are barraged with offers from a growing number of cities, with Baltimore's Convention Center in heated competition for business with other new east coast facilities like those in Philadelphia, Charlotte and Orlando.

And consumers, due to the growth and popularity of destination retailers like Borders and Bibelot -- now as likely to be located in the suburbs as downtown -- are changing where and how they spend their leisure time.

Every day we think about choices that affect our lives -- where to work, where to shop, where to live, where to open a business, where to take the kids for an afternoon.

In an increasingly competitive environment, and with the options growing exponentially, the challenge for urban areas such as downtown Baltimore is to make sure we do everything possible to create an environment where companies, conventions and consumers want to be.

We must build and maintain an environment where the landscape is well-manicured, the sidewalks neatly paved, where flowers, banners and trees beautify the street, signage directs people where they want to go and people feel comfortable taking a stroll.

With 5,000 businesses, 140,000 employees, 15,000 residents and 7 million tourists who could easily go somewhere else, it is clear that maintaining a positive environment is vital for the future of the city and the region. It's time to paint a new, brighter picture of downtown and invest in a more pedestrian-friendly, walkable center city.

A new look

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the business community are proposing a series of coordinated streetscape improvements and want to help pay for them.

Colonial banners, uniform sidewalks, flower boxes, new trees, pedestrian directional signs and decorative street furniture will give all of downtown -- not just areas like the Inner Harbor -- the same high-quality look.

Thus, the tourist from New York or the family from Catonsville, Crofton or Frederick can get around easily and will return again and again.

The NationsBank employee waiting for the bus will be surrounded by an attractive environment and have a place to sit.

Visitors entering downtown from I-95 or Russell Street will be greeted by beautiful plantings and signs to point them in the right direction.

Across the country cities like Philadelphia and Phoenix are improving their environments and positioning themselves as pedestrian and visitor friendly destinations. So, too, are closer-to-home areas like Towson and Annapolis.

To protect its unique character and retain the richness that can't be found amidst suburban sprawl, downtown must do the same.

Laurie Schwartz is president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit corporation working with business and government.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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