Mayor Martin O'Malley will deliver his fifth state of the city address today at a time when the curtain is rising at the restored Hippodrome Theatre, huge biotech projects are in the works on Baltimore's east and west sides, and the city is taking control of 5,000 abandoned houses.
The address also comes as homicides remain stubbornly high, state aid is shrinking and Baltimore schools are $58 million in the hole.
Many observers feel the bad news outweighs the good these days, mainly because tight budgets will make it hard to tackle the city's toughest problems.
Yet no one is expecting a downbeat speech from O'Malley, who promotes the power of positive thinking with his anti-drug Believe campaign and often says the city needs to shake its "culture of failure."
"It's a very difficult time, a very, very difficult time," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who left office in 1971 after one difficult term. "But he is optimistic. ... It's easy to be, you know, a purveyor of doom. But that's not the answer. The answer is to completely explain what the problems are, how you prioritize those problems and how you deal with them."
The speech will begin at 4 p.m. in City Council chambers. It will be broadcast live on cable TV Channel 21.
O'Malley has sometimes used the state of the city address to unveil big policy initiatives. He highlighted Project 5000, his plan to gain title to more than a third of the city's 14,000 derelict properties, in his 2002 address. In 2001, he vowed to pursue an "all-out crusade" with churches and nonprofit groups to turn around the lives of troubled city children.
O'Malley's aides have given no hints about the substance of the mayor's speech, which was still being crafted late last week. They said they did not expect O'Malley to announce any new programs.
That might be no surprise given the city's fiscal constraints. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed state budget cuts aid to city programs by $6 million. That figure does not include money for schools, which is up $48 million over last year.
"The mayor is in a box," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "He has serious problems, solutions to which are beyond his control. ... Probably, the mayor is going to tell us that things would be better if the governor and his budget were more open-handed."
Lenneal J. Henderson, professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, sees a mixed bag - with the high murder rate and troubled school system acting as a drag on the city, and revitalization projects and the mayor's high profile giving it a boost.
"The mayor has been there, very present, visible, active," Henderson said. "I think he really has provided some rather dynamic leadership."
But given the scarcity of budget dollars, the city will have trouble addressing the poverty and drug abuse that cause so many urban ills, said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"Any big city - but Baltimore in particular - is in for rough time for a long time to come," he said. "And a mayor and City Council can only do so much. They are swimming against the tide. And it's a very, very high and fast tide."