A prescription for future health; Renewal: The O'Malley administration can begin to revitalize the city's sluggish economy by focusing on four critical areas.; Reviving Baltimore


AGENDA ITEMS for Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley: Election Day is past, and it is time to begin readying Baltimore for the next century, with an economy that can compete and with people who are equipped to make it go.

Our city's economy charitably can be described as depressed, but it doesn't have to stay that way. The region is going gangbusters, and the Inner Harbor continues to collect tourist dollars. But in the neighborhoods, the economy continues to stagger. The railroaders said it best: Baltimore needs new infrastructure to stay competitive. Norfolk Southern and CSX were talking about enlarging a rail tunnel to boost freight traffic, but their point applies generally to Baltimore beyond the harbor. The new administration should kick start growth in four areas:

* Transportation, especially for the masses;

* Commercial development, centered on the city's black colleges;

* Commercial corridor renewal;

* Adult education for the 21st century.

Let's quit boasting about taking the subway to Johns Hopkins. East Baltimore has needed better transit for decades. Extend that line to the Morgan State University campus, then to White Marsh. Look at the benefits:

East Baltimoreans can't easily get to jobs and business opportunities or to shopping areas. With a subway extension, they can. And with more traffic, businesses in East Baltimore could prosper.

Stops could be at Gay and Preston streets, North Avenue, Saint Lo Drive and Harford Road, for Lake Clifton-Eastern High School; 33rd Street and Hillen Road for Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School; Northwood Shopping Center; and Cold Spring and Hillen Road.

Morgan State is Maryland's urban university. Urban universities need mass transit to work well. How else do the staff, night students and commuters get in and out? Morgan State often hosts entertainment, sports events, lectures and other activities that bring out lots of people. Transit makes it easier to plan such activities, and to involve the whole community in the university.

Public transit also would ease the commuting problem for the two high schools, and bring new traffic to Northwood. It would permit night classes at Mervo. The North Avenue stop would spur development on the avenue's eastern end. Great Blacks in Wax, Sojourner-Douglass College, and the Stop, Shop & Save supermarket would be within walking distance.

Commercial magnets

Morgan State and Coppin State College pump a lot of business into the city but are not seen as the commercial magnets they could be. Morgan State's 6,000 students could easily support a commercial zone across Hillen Road from the main campus at Cold Spring Lane. This could be anchored by a multiscreen movie theater offering repertory, offbeat films as well as Hollywood hits. The theater could also double as a meeting hall. Also needed:

* Sporting goods and clothing stores;

* A bookstore with university memorabilia as well as leisure reading for African-Americans, textbooks and study materials;

* A major-league newspaper and magazine rack;

* Fast-food, vegetarian and conventional adult restaurants, and a 24-hour convenience store;

* Barbershop and beauty parlor;

* Appliance store, stereo shop and music store;

* A student rathskeller and billiard parlor;

* Several bars-restaurants with live entertainment. Businesses would of necessity operate late hours, because students are up at all hours. Commuters need places to chill out, too.

Coppin State now has its first dorm, and could handle more resident students. What Coppin State needs, in addition to a commercial strip facing its North Avenue campus, is city-backed, off-campus housing. Such a program would inspect and approve housing for Coppin State students, faculty and staff, and could offer financial incentives and assistance to make it happen. The area also would need site beautification, and special policing. Coppin State could expand its security force with authority to patrol nearby blocks.

Coppin State also needs better transit. A rail line passes the North Avenue campus. It doesn't carry passengers, but a MARC shuttle could run from Fulton and Winchester streets in the east to Wabash Avenue and West Cold Spring Lane. That would connect an under-served West Baltimore neighborhood to the Metro. Station stops could serve Carver Vocational-Technical High School at Bentalou Street, across from Easterwood Park; Coppin State at North Avenue; Mondawmin Mall at Fairview Avenue at Gwynns Falls Parkway; and Baltimore City Community College, where the rails cross Liberty Heights Avenue. Stops at Sequoia and Hilton avenues could serve Ashburton and lower Park Heights as well.

Campus commercial zones need not threaten Mondawmin Mall or Northwood Shopping Center. They have other clientele, and don't serve student populations well. The older malls would get new traffic from the transit stops.

Housing improvements

Baltimore's educational institutions continue to produce African-American professionals. But there is no housing market for upwardly mobile inner-city families, with reasonable guarantees of safety and good schools. So the newly educated move out. They shouldn't have to. Their roots are in the city. Brightening commercial corridors on North Avenue in East Baltimore and along Greenmount and Pennsylvania avenues, and pushing townhouse development for educated professionals and their families, can provide alternatives.

Along Pennsylvania Avenue, commercial traffic could pick up if a realignment put bus line crossings at strategic intersections. Connecting the former Lafayette Market with the proposed transit spur at Fulton and Winchester streets would boost usage of that line, and if the bus ran over McMechen Street to Bolton Hill, it would make getting across town easy. Other buses could be rerouted, too, after a city-backed revitalization program brought a better shopping mix.

With amenities such as venues for theater and jazz near Great Blacks in Wax, night spots with entertainment for sophisticated audiences, furniture and appliance stores and a bookstore or two, North Avenue east of Saint Paul Street could blossom.

The area also needs intensive police protection to root out drugs and stop street disturbances near North Avenue. The No. 1 reason middle-class blacks move out is neighborhood chaos.

The area's schools will need more attention if Baltimore is to hold onto its upwardly mobile black professionals. One way would be to create charter schools, to engage the talents and energy of the educated population lured into the corridor by housing and amenities. When the verbiage is stripped away, whites and blacks moving to the suburbs say pretty much the same thing: They want schools where they have more of a say, and where they believe the education is superior. Give those things to Baltimore's new urban pioneers in charter schools, and make sure they have other amenities such as a community center, recreational facilities, arts and crafts classes, and the neighborhood will be a sure winner. Others will benefit, too.

Adult education

Baltimore has many adults who barely completed high school and lack technical skills. Things don't have to stay that way; problems can become opportunities. Specifically, U.S. Census reports show that 53 percent of all black Americans are under age 30. Approximately 40 percent are under 20. That's a young population, and it presages a baby boom. What Baltimore does to prepare its slice of that demographic for tomorrow's jobs will define its future.

Maryland's complaint about the new, information technology-driven economy represents an opportunity for Baltimore: There are 25,000 unfilled jobs in computer and telecommunications technology in this state today, while Baltimore has many young adults who could fill such jobs. Most probably completed high school. What's needed is outreach centers for the city's community college to provide certificate-level and associate degree training in information systems. BCCC has good certificate programs, but they need to be expanded, with added college-preparatory courses offered in centers near the population most needing skills. Obvious sites for such courses are vocational-technical schools, during off hours and on weekends, when adults in the work force can take advantage of them. Other sites could be community centers, or public schools, used after hours.

Today's conditions exist because of deliberate decisions made yesterday. New decisions, and new city and state spending priorities, can create different conditions. Changes of the kind envisioned here happen in every city, where authorities decide that old neighborhoods should be recycled into zones of gentrification. Federal Hill is one example.

Baltimore needs to give its most committed residents the thoughtful planning support and careful investments that can make a difference in neighborhoods where housing stock and commercial infrastructure can be renewed. The city needs to make the investment in people President Clinton once spoke so movingly about, equipping them to capitalize on the burgeoning information economy. In the end, the city's tax base will grow, as its people earn better wages and spend more of their dollars with businesses that have remained here. In other words, Baltimore need not sit idly by, watching other regions grab all the best jobs and amenities. Baltimore may be in the Rust Belt, but its people don't have to stay rusty.

Garland Thompson, a former Sun editorial writer, is editor-at-large of two magazines published by Career Communications Group Inc. in Baltimore.

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