THERE'S A POPULAR computer game, Sim City, that challenges players to "design and build the city of your dreams." Diverse housing clusters around green parks. Modern transportation whisks workers to offices overlooking the waterfront. Integrated port, highway and rail systems efficiently deliver goods from productive manufacturing plants. A booming economy keeps the public coffers full so every road, alley and sidewalk is well maintained.
But even in Sim City's simulated world, reality strikes. As a ticker rolls the years forward, streets disintegrate. People move further from the city's neatly planned core, leaving deteriorating neighborhoods and empty storefronts. In a place with little investment, crime goes up. Property values go down. And a sense of abandonment quickly moves in.
I've played Sim City, and it's fun. But real life is different. It's easy for public leaders to do nothing for communities in distress when the overall economy is good. Baltimore County is taking action now to stop the decline in our older neighborhoods.
Baltimore County's Neighborhood Renewal program builds a better quality of life for the thousands of people who live in some of the county's aging communities. This year, the Maryland General Assembly approved a neighborhood renewal law, intended to help us uplift portions of Essex-Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk. This law gives Baltimore County extremely limited authority to use eminent domain as one tool to spur redevelopment in these three designated areas.
The east side of Baltimore County demonstrates many of the fundamental shifts taking place in America's older suburban areas. During its World War II heyday, Middle River's Glenn L. Martin plant put some 40,000 people to work building planes.
Nearby, another 30,000 workers churned steel at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point. Literally thousands of homes and apartments were quickly built to house the influx of workers and their families. Salaries were high, and rose even further as demand outstripped supply.
Today's economy no longer relies on traditional industries. Many high-wage manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower paying service jobs. New technologies require fewer workers for the same output.
Although tax incentives have stimulated more than $261 million in recent capital investments in the North Point Enterprise Zone, the past six decades have seen net manufacturing employment plunge by 8,000 in eastern Baltimore County.
Although a new $300 million cold roll mill recently came on line at Beth Steel, the steel mill now employs just over 5,000 people, down from 30,000 in the 1940s. Lockheed Martin Launching Systems and Middle River Aircraft Systems, offspring of the original Glenn L. Martin Co., today employ fewer than 2,200 technology workers in Middle River.
Since 1970, population in Essex, Middle River and Dundalk dropped by 15,000, with a marked loss of younger people.
With abandonment comes crime.
In 1999 alone there were 800 police calls for incidents at the Yorkway Apartments in Dundalk; 4,200 calls to the Villages of Tall Trees in Essex. Despite continuous intervention by police, social services agencies and citizen advocates, these pockets of crime remain.
Baltimore County began working with businesses and community organizations in 1996 to develop the Eastern Baltimore County Revitalization Strategy, a rethinking of the needs and potential of the county's east side. Four years later, the core elements of this comprehensive plan are moving off the drawing board and into action:
By 2004, a $60 million extension of Maryland Route 43 will connect the White Marsh growth area with Middle River, the Chesapeake Industrial Park and Martin State Airport. This new road will open about 700 acres of land already zoned for industrial development. Consultants estimate that opening these parcels could generate up to 15,000 new jobs.
Baltimore County has purchased and demolished the troubled Riverdale apartment complex in Middle River. A proposal has been requested for a master developer to create a new neighborhood of single family homes on the site, designed to attract middle class families back to the community. The county also hopes to purchase the failing Yorkway Apartments to transform them into single family homes. Hopewell Pointe, a $20 million private development along Middle River, soon begins construction of waterfront housing.
Baltimore County also is looking to stimulate private investment with a community waterfront destination. Improved marina facilities, complemented by several restaurants and marine-related retailers, will be nestled on 20 acres at the headwaters of Middle River. More than a dozen environmental enhancements will continue to protect the Chesapeake Bay and shoreline.
A $5 million Eastern Boulevard streetscape is under construction, bringing safer traffic patterns, sidewalks, new landscaping and lighting. With the county's purchase of the Villages of Tall Trees, a deteriorating 1940s-era apartment complex, residents of Essex and Middle River will have a new park and recreation area.
Restoring older communities is not a game. It's serious business that is vital to the future of Baltimore County and the entire region. The county's Neighborhood Renewal program deserves the support of all residents.
Robert L. Hannon is executive director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development.