Selling the city

The Baltimore Sun

When Ayodeji "Deji" Dawodu's car broke down a few years ago forcing the Washington resident to take the metro to work, he came across something that would make him pack up and move.

What he saw on the metro was an advertisement by Live Baltimore Home Center enticing Washington residents to relocate to Charm City.

"I never really contemplated Baltimore before," Dawodu said. "But going through their Web site and seeing the incentives the city offers was really good help."

Dawodu now owns two Baltimore homes, both found using Live Baltimore's services. He has also convinced two friends and his girlfriend to leave Washington and buy homes here.

This scenario is exactly what the people behind Live Baltimore had in mind when they began their campaign to attract city dwellers 10 years ago.

Before Live Baltimore, there were groups trying to lure just about everyone to the city -- including businesses, tourists, developers and day-trippers -- but only grassroots efforts were being made to attract homeowners. That's until Live Baltimore came on the scene, changing the way people look at city living and racking up some impressive numbers.

Since Live Baltimore's inception, home prices in the city have risen 205 percent. Live Baltimore has trained more than 1,600 real estate agents through its continuing education classes. More than 1,400 city residents serve as ambassadors for the home center, offering first-hand advice on their neighborhoods. And after losing population every decade since 1950, it increased by almost 900 residents in 2006.

"Our primary focus is to concentrate on making the city of Baltimore a preferred living destination," said Anna Custer, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center. "From the beginning, it's been about the residents of our city wanting to see a better Baltimore, wanting more people in on it and trying to encourage ways for the city to grow."

The home center is in the middle of its third advertising push to win over Washington residents by promoting Baltimore as a great place to call home and as an affordable alternative.

"Since beginning the D.C. campaign, we've seen a positive net migration from the D.C. metro area to Baltimore. We like to think Live Baltimore played a part in that," Custer said.

For Dawodu, who's studying to be a graphic designer and photographer, Baltimore is just what he was looking for: ethnic restaurants, authentic neighborhoods, an artist-friendly community and what he calls a smart real estate buy.

"I lived in D.C. through the revitalization ... when I wanted to buy a house [the prices] were so out of control I just missed the boat," said Dawodu, who first purchased in Upton and now lives in Panway in the Greater Mondawmin community. "I bought in neighborhoods that once they reach their peak will be in good locations with good amenities."

While home hunting, he attended one of Live Baltimore's education classes and qualified for the city to pay for his home inspection. He now volunteers with Live Baltimore on a regular basis.

Last month the organization officially celebrated its 10th anniversary.

"The vision in the beginning was so clear, because there was such an absence of any real effort to promote city living," said one of Live Baltimore's founders, Cheryl Casciani, who is the director of community investment for the Baltimore Community Foundation. "It's been a satisfying 10 years to watch the organization grow and develop."

Ongoing mission

Casciani was part of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which in 1997 partnered with a grass roots group known as encore baltiMORE! to promote the city as an ideal living destination. In 2002, Live Baltimore became an independent, nonprofit organization.

Raising awareness and promoting city living remains Live Baltimore's core mission.

"Live Baltimore was way ahead of its time. We were at the forefront of really making things happen," said Tracy Gosson, who joined the campaign in 1998 as its first executive director.

Gosson is credited with leading the organization into what is today considered a national model on how to attract people to city life. In developing the concept, Live Baltimore founders looked to places such as Cleveland that had a home center, but then greatly expanded on the idea. Many cities, including Cleveland, soon turned to Live Baltimore for advice.

One of the first priorities was for Gosson to set up a Web site for prospective Baltimore homebuyers and renters. Neighborhood profiles, information on incentive programs and a list of preferred real estate agents were all part of the Web site at a time when Internet technology was just becoming mainstream.

"I made it my business to be an expert on anything that had to do with home-buying trends, the city and the neighborhoods," Gosson said. The hard work paid off, and the Web site now attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.

There have been other payoffs as well, including the twice annual "Buying Into Baltimore" home-buying fair and neighborhood tours.

Gosson says the opening of the Live Baltimore retail center on Charles Street is the organization's greatest accomplishment under her nine-year leadership. The storefront opened in 2004 and provides those interested in learning more about city life a place to receive personalized help.

"The retail center was the final connection to the public," Gosson said. "It was that last piece of people wanting to come to us when it was convenient for them."

Real estate agents and developers say Live Baltimore is an invaluable resource. "They offer ways to keep up with all the information that helps us serve our clients better," said Wayne Curtis, an agent with Long and Foster in Fells Point.

For local developer Patrick Turner, Live Baltimore has served not only as the much-needed cheerleader for the city, but also a way to keep homebuyers up on what projects are coming. "The city does need the promotion, and I think they do a wonderful job of it," Turner said.

He's working with Live Baltimore to promote Silo Point, a 228-condominium development in Locust Point that's expected to open in the spring. "When they are promoting to people moving to the city, they want to show all the different options available. It's great for us."

Challenges

Now as the real estate market shows steady declines in the pace of home buying in metropolitan areas and in some cases a drop in housing values, the center will face questions of how to continue to attract buyers.

This comes on top of tough issues such as crime and public education that still haunt the city.

"It's not impossible, you just have to be innovative," said Gosson, who has gone on to start her own marketing and economic consulting company Sagesse Inc.

Custer said the Live Baltimore board will meet this winter to formulate strategic opportunities in a changing market. They have also hired a staff person to market Baltimore as a choice destination as the Base Realignment and Closure Commission brings thousands of new residents to the area.

Serving niche markets such as the city's growing Hispanic population, recent college graduates and single women who make up 40 percent of the city's recent homebuyers are also on the radar.

"We're still the most affordable jurisdiction in the region, and there is definitely still interest out there," Custer said. "Live Baltimore is still the source to come to."

BY THE NUMBERS

1,200 people visit the home center annually to find out about city living in Baltimore

1,400 residents volunteer as ambassadors -- assisting Live Baltimore at events and talking to potential residents about their neighborhoods

10,000 subscribe to Live Baltimore's weekly e-newsletter, which highlights neighborhoods, residential developments and city happenings

70,000 copies of the City Living Resource Guide are distributed annually across the greater Baltimore/Washington region

$300,000 is awarded annually to 100 "Buying into Baltimore" participants who decide to purchase a home in the city

[Live Baltimore Home Center]

LIVE BALTIMORE PROGRAMS

Some of Live Baltimore Home Center's most popular programs and services:

LiveBaltimore.com

-- Live Baltimore's Web site is a comprehensive resource for living in Baltimore. It provides extensive information about home-buying incentives and tax credit programs, profiles of more than 120 neighborhoods, and provides average home sale prices, classified listings of properties for sale, links to preferred real estate agents and more.

I Love City Living Ambassadors

-- Ambassadors are part of a network of city residents who work with real estate agents, the media and Live Baltimore staff to get the word out about city living in Baltimore.

Live Baltimore preferred real estate professionals

-- These are fully licensed agents who have successfully completed Live Baltimore's "Selling Baltimore City" continuing education class and are educated on city neighborhoods, homeownership incentive programs and historic tax-credit programs.

"Welcome to Baltimore Living" relocation kits

-- This is a comprehensive guide to city services, entertainment, parks and recreation, home-buying incentives, relocation guidance and more.

City Living Resource Guide

-- This free guide is a resource on home buying and renting in Baltimore. It contains information on mortgage lenders, real estate agents and rehab specialists as well as practical advice on the home-buying process.

Buying Into Baltimore home-buying fairs and neighborhood tours

-- This initiative helps people discover Baltimore's neighborhoods and gives them the opportunity to receive a $3,000 grant toward a down payment or closing costs on a home in designated areas of Baltimore. Attendees choose from different neighborhood tours, view sample homes for sale and meet with exhibitors to learn about home buying in Baltimore.

Home-buying education classes

-- Throughout the year, Live Baltimore offers free classes on topics that include applying for a mortgage, renovating a home and maximizing home-buying incentive opportunities.

Live Baltimore Home Center

-- The center is at 343 N. Charles St. It provides a walk-in location for prospective homebuyers seeking information on city neighborhoods. Preferred lenders and real estate professionals are onsite.

[Information provided by Live Baltimore Home Center]

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