The Baltimore they knew was a city in despair. Its retailers and residents were fleeing to the suburbs, property values were in free fall, and signs of urban decay were everywhere.
There was no Charles Center, no Jones Falls Expressway, no Harborplace, no convention center, no Metro subway, no Ravens and no National Aquarium.
Marshalling their economic star power, a who's who of Baltimore business leaders formed the Greater Baltimore Committee 50 years ago today and threw their weight behind all of those revitalization projects and more. What emerged was a marriage of public and private interests that became a model for urban revitalization copied nationally and internationally by cities facing crises.
"If they wanted something done, we did it. If we wanted something done, they helped us," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who served on Baltimore's City Council and later as mayor during much of the GBC's early history. "It was not a matter of competition between government and business. It's never been the same."
Though some say the GBC has lost potency as the corporate headquarters that spawned its early leaders disappeared, most agree that it remains a force in City Hall and Annapolis, helping to lobby for key development projects.
"The landscape has changed, the population demographics have changed, the issues of poverty have grown, but the effectiveness of the organization has not, I think, been diminished," said Donald Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who served as president of the GBC for nine years beginning in 1993. He is president of SunTrust Banks' Maryland division.
As it celebrates 50 years, the GBC, whose offices on the 17th floor of a downtown skyscraper overlook the Inner Harbor it helped spawn, is trying to find its footing in a city at a crossroads. Baltimore's old-line industries are disappearing, increasingly replaced by high-technology, service-oriented businesses.
Over the years, the GBC has refined its role as other business groups such as the Greater Baltimore Alliance and the Downtown Partnership emerged. The three agreed to coordinate their efforts after a May 2003 summit, with the GBC concentrating on public policy, infrastructure and improving the business climate for the metropolitan area.
More recently, it has lobbied for the creation of a 2 million-square-foot biotechnology research center on Baltimore's east side, and advocated for a similar $300 million University of Maryland, Baltimore BioPark on the city's west side. It is also credited with leading the drive to revitalize the Hippodrome Theatre, considered an anchor for redevelopment of the west side. It recently helped win state funding for initial development of two more subway lines and other mass transit initiatives.
The projects are symbolic of the GBC's and the city's shift toward a knowledge-based economy and away from the smokestack industries that once dominated. Beginning 10 years ago, the GBC identified biotechnology and health care as industries that could propel the region's economy.
"The GBC is every bit as relevant today if not more so because it serves as an organization that brings about changes and pushes and prods for advancements to occur," said Donald C. Fry, GBC president.
It all started with a Jan. 5, 1955, meeting at the Elkridge Club that drew Baltimore's movers and shakers, from Robert H. Levi of retailer Hecht Co. and Thomas Butler, president of Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co., to Alonzo G. Decker, president of Black & Decker, and a young James W. Rouse, a GBC linchpin who went on to become a nationally renowned urban planner and developer. There were more than 80 in all, representing just about every business with a financial stake in the city's survival.
"It was the greatest conglomeration of business manpower you could ever find, and they all wanted to save the city," Schaefer said.
The genesis for the organization can be found in Baltimore's "Governmental Efficiency and Economy Commission," which issued a report in 1952 that painted a bleak picture. The report warned that the cost of government was rising at a time when the city's tax base was shrinking rapidly. It concluded by saying that unless radical steps were taken, the municipal corporation could be bankrupt within a generation.
Rouse, then a mortgage banker, and his partner, Hunter Moss, were among a handful of young business leaders who spent several years badgering Baltimore's business community to take action. Doors all over town were slammed in their faces until they recruited Clarence W. Miles, a corporate lawyer and president of the Orioles baseball team, in 1955 to help them gain support from Mercantile and other key Baltimore institutions.
"Clarence Miles really did a heroic job of opening doors, getting people interested, like the 'Merc,'" said Walter Sondheim Jr., former chairman of the city's Urban Renewal and Housing Commission and one of the architects of the Inner Harbor redevelopment. "That's what really kept the idea from dying."
Miles served as the group's first chairman. William Boucher III was hired in 1956 as its first permanent director, becoming a powerful influence during his 25-year tenure.
One of the group's early initiatives was the rebuilding of the city's core with the Charles Center project. The plan was to clear 14 acres in the middle of downtown and start from scratch. Voters approved a bond issue for Charles Center and the Civic Center in 1958, and ground was broken on One Charles Center in August 1961.
"[The GBC] was successful in really bringing the community around to support the Charles Center project, which was a fairly drastic project," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc. and now vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services.
There was plenty of skepticism and controversy surrounding the project, which many saw as a futile effort.
"But everybody said, 'We've got to do it anyway, we've got to try,'" Millspaugh said.
The success of Charles Center led to plans to restore the city's waterfront. About 240 acres were slated for redevelopment in the Inner Harbor, which became a symbol of the city's comeback.
The Inner Harbor became a model for other port cities, including Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Rotterdam, Netherlands. As early as the 1970s, the GBC and Baltimore were hailed internationally by urban planners as a prime example of how to bring together public and private forces to rebuild an urban area, said Wim Wiewel, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Baltimore and an expert in urban planning.
But urban planners also took note of the Baltimore model's shortcomings when the Inner Harbor failed initially to spawn rebirth in surrounding neighborhoods, Wiewel said. It wasn't until recent years that Canton and Fells Point began to rebound, in part because of the Inner Harbor's success.
"It remained a signature project, but it was unclear that its spillover effects were really significant enough to change the whole city," he said.
Wiewel and others familiar with the GBC said the organization inevitably lost influence as the city's signature retailers, financial institutions and corporations were swallowed by competitors or went out of business, leaving fewer locally connected executives behind to lead.
"They don't have the leadership they had then," Schaefer said. The former mayor and governor said the GBC strayed from its mission of promoting business by getting into public policy issues, such as public schools reform. The business community is not united around strong leaders, as it was during the GBC's heyday in the 1960s and '70s, he said.
But others argue that the GBC, which has more than 450 members and an annual budget of $1.8 million, is needed now as much as ever.
"It has been said correctly on many occasions that we are now a branch town," said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic and policy consulting firm, and a GBC member. "However, that probably makes the GBC more important, not less, because now the need for coordination across businesses ... is greater than ever."
Hutchinson, the former GBC president, disputes the notion that Baltimore is a branch town, pointing to the emergence of T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason as nationally known financial houses. The Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine also has stepped in to aid the city's economic transformation, taking the place of other old-line industries.
"All of those people have had significant roles on the board of the GBC and are leading those efforts," he said. "Those folks wouldn't have had a place at the table [in the past]. Now they do and they're driving the economy."
The GBC's half century
A look at some major initiatives pursued by the GBC
Jan. 5, 1955: Baltimore business leaders form Greater Baltimore Committee
1959: GBC focuses on downtown renewal as its first project
Aug. 10, 1961: Ground broken for One Charles Center
Oct. 21, 1962: Opening of Civic Center (above)
Nov. 2, 1962: Jones Falls Expressway ribbon-cutting
Oct. 28, 1968: Demolition starts for Inner Harbor revitalization
Source: Greater Baltimore Committee
Oct. 4, 1973: Groundbreaking for World Trade Center, first Inner Harbor skyscraper
June 11, 1976: Maryland Science Center opens, first major Inner Harbor attraction
Oct. 20, 1979: Baltimore Convention Center opens
July 2, 1980: Harborplace (above) opens
Aug. 8, 1981: National Aquarium opens
Nov. 21, 1983: First section of Metro subway opens, Charles Center to Reisterstown Road Plaza
July 23, 1996: Groundbreaking for Ravens stadium after heavy lobbying by GBC
April 13, 1998: GBC wins first state funding for Hippodrome Theatre revitalization
May 20, 2003: GBC pledges $1 million to help manage east-side life sciences park, area revitalization
Feb. 10, 2004: Grand opening of Hippodrome Theatre (above) at France-Merrick Performing Arts Center
Sept. 23, 2004: Maryland Department of Transportation includes $242 million in capital budget for Red Line and Green Line subway extensions