City could spread some bucks in 'outback'


THE ORIOLES have been struggling - actually, I think Davey Johnson has a voodoo doll in his golf bag - but, when you look at the big picture, Baltimore is hot. It's happening. Somebody obviously believes this city is a winner. Add it up:

Two, maybe three, big new hotels within a mile of the Convention Center. Plans to redevelop the Hippodrome Theater. Plans to wipe out a section of the Howard Street-Park Avenue area for apartments, offices and, it is hoped, a big retailer or two to bolster the area's shopping district. Continued expansion of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Plans to revive the Brokerage. Plans for an empowerment zone business park across from the main post office on Fayette Street. A $44 million Hopkins project to rebuild a big chunk of the east side. A new football stadium; Port Discovery, Planet Hollywood and the ESPN Zone at the Power Plant; McCormick & Schmick's at Pier V. Have I covered everything?

Probably not.

If you were mayor of the city, would you look at all this and say, "What this city needs is slot machines?"

I'd be patting myself on the back (even if I should be patting Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., on the back).

But that wasn't my point.

At today's meeting of the Baltimore family, I'd like to speak up for the neighborhoods. Most of the projects noted in the long, second paragraph of today's column are downtown, or inside empowerment zones, or for tourists, or related to corporations or institutions that will employ lots of people, and not necessarily city residents. I'm looking at Baltimore's great outback, sections of the city where, hard as it might be to imagine, middle-class people still work, live, eat and play.

The subject of how the Schmoke administration and the Baltimore City Council choose to invest the public's money - this year, the Paterakis and Angelos hotels are the big-ticket items - came up again the other day during a stroll down York Road in good ol' Govans.

Like a lot of neighborhoods, it's healthy but sagging here and there. It's a slice of city with too many boarded-up or struggling businesses. It's a place that could do better and deserves better, a perfect place for city money, for municipal action. Sprinkle in some cash to help small businesses - maybe just 1 percent of what the city plans to give the millionaires to build their downtown hotels - and we'd push things to the positive side.

I'm not talking about something on the scale of the Johns Hopkins-Middle East project, or the Hippodrome redevelopment on the west side.

I'm talking about using money as fertilizer, a dash here and a dash there, in the city's smaller gardens.

The Senator Theatre got some smart money for a renovation and expansion through BDC. But what's happening across York Road, at Belvedere Square? (There's a question we've asked before.)

The city stood idle for several years as popular retailers moved out and the square's absentee developer allowed it to totter as a genuine attraction on the north side of town. The city, which administered a federal loan of $1.7 million on the project, declared it in default in 1996.

I keep hearing that Belvedere Square is 80 percent occupied, but that figure overstates the feeling of vitality in the area. Since merchants moved out of the original market, a thriving hangout, the place hasn't been the same. Analysts say the market concept in Baltimore is dead. They're wrong. A working-class market like the other city markets - with competitively priced produce and meats, fish, a raw bar, and a Tyrone's Fried Chicken! - would work there. (Why does everything have to be upscale anyway? If Belvedere Market were a little more downscale, more people would shop there. You know what I mean? A little more kale, a little less radicchio!)

But anyway, the city now has forgiven the debt, and the property loan-holder, Eastern Savings Bank, will spend $400,000 to renovate the site and attract new tenants. I guess that's better late than never.

Still, farther down York Road, you see vacant commercial properties, big gaps in an area that just should not be left to decline, not with a middle class and even an affluent class so close by. There are several places around town - Hamilton, for instance, Walbrook Junction, Waverly, Hampden, Monument Street, Pennsylvania Avenue - that could use a boost from the city. Spruce up the streets, sprinkle some money into small businesses (to keep the pawnshops away), instead of underwriting millionaires. The millionaires would have built their hotels just the same - Harvey Schulweis plans to - and there would have been more money around for the neighborhoods.

Where were the Democrats?

Herb Smith, Western Maryland College prof and keen political analyst, made the Bay Bridge Walk on Sunday, and he notes that volunteers for Ellen Sauerbrey, Republican candidate for governor, had the biggest and most impressive presence. In fact, Smith didn't see a Democratic candidate, or even a campaign worker. "Given the crowd numbered 80,000, all filing past a selected spot, it's a no-brainer to have a significant presence," says Smith. "What are the Democrats thinking, and who's advising them to pass up an event like that?" ... While in Fells Point, we once again saw this sign in a panhandler's hands: "I won't lie. I want a beer." ... FYI, on Wednesday's item about seizure victim Sandi Moffett: Her mom was with her at Attman's Delicatessen and drove Sandi home. ... One more thing: The water tower in Roland Park. Sharp-eyed videographer Kurt Kolaja thinks it's leaning a little to the left. Do I hear a second? Anyone out there have a plumb bob?

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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