At 58 years old, Joan Sweet has spent her whole life living in the suburbs. When her husband is transferred in the next few years from the military base of Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Aberdeen Proving Ground, he'll be looking for a quick commute to work.
So why might the couple move to Baltimore? Sweet doesn't know, really. But there she was yesterday, touring the city's neighborhoods and picking up information about home styles and prices.
"I've never lived in a city, so I'm not sure how I'd like it," she said. "But I like going to cities."
Baltimore put its best face forward yesterday as Sweet and nearly 400 others who expect to move to Maryland by 2010 as part of the military's base realignment and closure process - known as BRAC - came for a visit.
Many had fought hard not to leave Fort Monmouth. Many were longtime suburbanites unsure about a commute to Aberdeen or Fort Meade and worried about crime and schools. Some will be back next month for a tour of Harford County.
But for yesterday, at least, they were giving Baltimore a chance.
The whirlwind day was sponsored by Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. Eight tour buses from Fort Monmouth and one from the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Va., arrived in Canton by late morning. Passengers disembarked for lunch and a community fair at the Clarence Du Burns Arena. Then they were back on board for tours of selected neighborhoods, followed by a reception at the War Memorial Plaza before the ride home.
At the fair, neighborhood associations and public agencies set up booths on the arena's green Astroturf while a jazz band played upstairs. The Mayor's Office of International Affairs distributed buttons with "Believe" translated into the many languages spoken in Baltimore, from Chinese to Swahili to Gaelic.
To spruce up its booth, the Midtown Development Corp. hired an artist to paint and carve out of foam core replications of such landmarks as the Charles Theater and the Smyth Jewelers billboard where the Natty Boh guy is proposing to the Utz girl. With so many visitors coming from New Jersey, "We wanted to create a mini-Manhattan scene," explained Linda Harrington, the group's deputy director.
Mayor Sheila Dixon greeted the semi-attentive audience, urging people to rid themselves of any preconceived notions they might have about Baltimore.
"You will be pleasantly surprised," she said, citing the city's affordability, restaurants and museums, improving schools - and the fact that President Bush's daughter Jenna just bought a home in Federal Hill. "We will welcome you with open arms."
Leena Mathew, 38, a civilian electronics engineer, left her husband and two young sons in Eatontown, N.J., while she took the day to get a sense of Baltimore. "I'm worried about the crime rates," she whispered while munching on a turkey sandwich from the buffet line. She's been reading about Perry Hall in Baltimore County and wondered whether it's safe to live there.
At 1:30 p.m., the first city tours began. The "blue tour" - so named for the color of its passengers' wristbands - traveled through Fells Point, Harbor East, Roland Park and other pricey communities. Guiding the 52 people on the bus was Kristy Taylor of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods.
From the arena, the bus headed northwest on Boston Street, west on Aliceanna and north on President, merging onto the Jones Falls Expressway.
"What is that?" one woman asked, pointing to a big building with few windows. It was the maximum-security prison.
The price of gas was another eye-opener. Passengers said it's about 25 cents a gallon cheaper in New Jersey.
Every time the bus entered a new neighborhood, Taylor read its average home sale price, as well as its distance and estimated commuting time from Aberdeen and Fort Meade.
Alberto Diaz's favorite area was Charles Village (average home price: $305,587; distance to Aberdeen: 37 miles or 54 minutes).
"It's very charming, down to earth - people walking around holding hands. You don't see that too much," said Diaz, 57, an electrical engineer who is trying to get his girlfriend to move from New Jersey to Baltimore with him but fears the absence of beaches nearby will discourage her.
The only stop on the two-hour tour was at 1209 N. Charles St., where the visitors toured a new condominium complex.
Carlene Fisher, 40, of Neptune, N.J., admired the granite countertops and the hardwood floors in the model unit, where her 6-year-old son curled up against the dishwasher to play Super Mario Brothers on his Nintendo DS. But she was more taken with the older homes she'd seen earlier in the tour. While she's used to the comforts of suburban life, she thought a neighborhood like Homeland or Guilford might offer the best of both worlds - if there's a good school.
"I'm kind of excited now," she said.