MARYLAND Del. Howard P. Rawlings, powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and other key African-American legislators are right to question the benefits of Mayor Martin O'Malley's funding request for his $350 million Digital Harbor vision.
That's a lot of money, and for their support black legislators had better gain more than a few low-tech jobs and classroom computers for their constituencies.
While it is easy to become intoxicated with the possibility of Baltimore's becoming the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, the sobering reality for the legislators is that parts of their districts instead might become the Oaklands and East Palo Altos of the East Coast: two largely minority areas that missed the benefits of northern California's technology boom.
That said, Mr. O'Malley's Digital Harbor is the clearest and best-articulated answer to the decline of Baltimore's old-industry economy. With the city's shrinking tax base, net loss of jobs and the prospect of urban blight, an infusion of new blood in the form of information technology companies is Baltimore's best chance of seeing real, positive change in a meaningful time frame for its citizens.
Despite the flood of news reports on the failure of dot-coms, information technology is here to stay. Computer-related and communications purchases outpace all other office purchases. E-mail messages beat out the number of letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. New technological advances such as ultra-wide band and molecular electronic circuits are poised to change existing business paradigms and reinvigorate our economy and imaginations.
And with 130,000 new information technology jobs coming online each year, Baltimore must be prepared to exploit the next generation of Internet and other high-technology growth.
But does Baltimore really stand a chance in the competition to attract information technology companies? Absolutely. Companies will look at several factors in deciding where to locate: availability of cheap energy and a well-trained work force, access to a high-quality, high-speed Internet and telecommunications infrastructure and quality-of-life issues. In several of these categories, Baltimore, or parts of it, is competitive with cities such as Nashville, Tenn., Dallas, Seattle, and Norfolk, Va.
For example, you still can buy a home in Baltimore for the cost of a New York City parking space and, the Jones Falls Expressway aside, Baltimoreans' daily commute is measured in minutes, not hours. In the time it takes to get from San Francisco to Palo Alto, someone working at a Baltimore company could have worked out at the Downtown Athletic Club, had breakfast at Donna's, read the paper and still beat his or her Californian counterpart to work.
That leaves the thorny, but not impassable obstacles of work force training and infrastructure development. Continuing, lifelong, anywhere-anyplace education must be an important part of Baltimore's digital strategy. With employee training tax credits, technology training centers and continuing education, companies can make poor Baltimore neighborhoods centers of economic expansion.
Addressing the quality of education and training in the city will have a major impact on the hiring of Baltimore's African-Americans, which lags far behind that of blacks in other cities. It will provide a counterweight to the temptation employers face to use foreign workers with H-1B visas to fill many of their technology positions.
As for infrastructure, our city ranks an impressive 20th among most-wired cities -- ahead of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami and Pittsburgh. But the Digital Harbor must be expanded into Baltimore's poorest areas. We must develop high-speed access, energy grids and telecommunications foundations in areas like West Baltimore, and we must do it now.
Maryland's black legislators find themselves at a rare moment in history, with the opportunity to use the Digital Harbor to bridge the digital, business, educational and employment divides. But the window of opportunity for Baltimore is very small. Community-minded developers like Bill Struever don't come along every day, and infrastructure is being built around the world to compete for these jobs.
In the end, the Digital Harbor gives city and state leaders a workable model for continuing Baltimore's renaissance. But it is important to realize that this future cannot be achieved without the full participation of the minority community.
How to make that happen is the question that Mr. Rawlings and company are asking. Hopefully, there will be good answers.
Tyrone D. Taborn is publisher of USBE & Information Technology magazine and is CEO of Baltimore-based Career Communications Group Inc.