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At age 20, Harborplace sails along smoothly


I played tourist in my own town this week. Thursday morning I went down to the Inner Harbor to watch the tall ships of OpSail 2000 leave port.

I am not a sailor. A long time ago my wife and I took a few sailing lessons, but after ramming most of the docks of Anne Arundel County, we abandoned the water and retreated to high ground and asphalt. Frankly, I have since regarded sailing as a rich man's hobby, something stressed-out upper-incomers do to unwind.

Having said that, I gotta admit that Thursday's sendoff was quite a spectacle. It is not every day that you see Ecuadorian sailors standing in the rigging, or listen to sailors serenade you as their ship shoves off, or get to give three cheers, "Hip, hip, hooray!" for the good ship, Soren Larsen. Corny, but fun nonetheless.

The experience of shouldering my way though the camera-carrying masses reminded me of the Fourth of July weekend of 1980 when crowds jammed Harborplace for its opening.

As one of a number of reporters covering the opening of Harborplace - I volunteered to eat my way through the pavilions - I remembered that I was skeptical at the time that crowds would continue to come to the Inner Harbor once the hoopla of the opening had subsided.

Moreover, the idea that there were "recreational shoppers" out there, people who would treat shopping as fun, not as a necessary chore, was hard for me to swallow. Harborplace was an enterprise aimed at tourists and where, I wondered, were all these free-spending day-trippers going to come from? I figured it would close up in a couple of years.

I, of course, was wrong. A couple months after Harborplace opened I recalled seeing throngs of folks wearing shorts and carrying cameras streaming across Light Street walking toward the harbor. "You know," I told my wife, "I saw some people today who looked an awful lot like tourists - in downtown Baltimore. Can you imagine such a thing?"

Much to my amazement, the tourists continued to come, especially on warm weekends. Thursday, Wayne Brokke, proprietor of Wayne's Bar-B-Que and one of the harbor's original merchants, told me that Harborplace had experienced ups and downs over the past two decades. After an initial surge of success there was a period, about 10 years ago, when restaurants were closing and things were looking sketchy, he said. But in the past three years business has been on an upswing, he said, and now the harbor is booming - literally. As Brokke spoke, the Pride of Baltimore II fired its cannon, its way of saying good-bye to the crowd on the docks.

As I made my way up to Federal Hill , I wrestled with the question posed 20 years ago. Namely, where are all these tourists from?

Part of the answer was on the clothing worn by some members of the crowd. I saw t-shirts from Jacksonville, Fla., Columbia, S.C., and Austin, Texas. The Inner Harbor has become a stopping spot for out-of-towners, real tourists.

Then there were the just-beyond-the-beltway tourists, folks who loaded the mini-van with kids and drove in from the suburbs for the day.

"Look down there," one mother perched on Federal Hill instructed her commuting brood. "That was Rash Field where we used to have ethnic festivals."

There were the retired folks, the silver-haired set, who are spending their "golden years" touring the world, toting their folding chairs.

Finally there are those of us who live in the city and treat the Inner Harbor like a longtime acquaintance, one you visit on special occasions, or when relatives come to town.

This week I pried myself out of my routine to watch the tall ships sail out of the harbor. It was magnificent sight, a tonic.

There are other sights that saw this week, such as a rat scampering before me as I climbed the steps of the park between St. Paul Street and St. Paul Plaza. Every view of the city is not pleasing.

But the other morning, as the sailors sang, the cannon fired and Harborplace marked its 20th year, Baltimore felt like a good place to live - and a nice place to visit.

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