Downtown Baltimore has always been a work in progress. From the days of the Baltimore clipper ships lined up at the docks to the shiny Legg Mason headquarters towering above Inner Harbor East today, change is the only constant - without it, whatever economic ambitions the city may harbor are doomed to failure.

And while it's understandable that many of us fret over worrisome matters that arise from time to time, such as whether there's an adequate police presence around the waterfront to counter visitors' concerns over unruly teens, the hopeful signs of growth and new development are too often minimized or even overlooked.

Such is the case with the latest numbers on convention bookings. Even in the midst of recession - and at a time of depressingly low hotel occupancy rates nationwide - the news on this front is surprisingly good. Baltimore hotel bookings by convention groups rose 16 percent in the year ending June 30.

Why? Primarily because the city has far more hotel rooms today than ever before, the most important of which are the 757 rooms added with last summer's opening of the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, a project made possible only because the city was willing to commit about $300 million to help finance it.

It's too early to tell whether that investment - one of the biggest gambles ever taken by the Baltimore Development Corp. - will pay off, but the big increase in bookings is an important first step. The new hotel has opened Baltimore to conventions that simply couldn't be accommodated in the past.

Perhaps just as thrilling is the prospect of an IndyCar Series race around the Inner Harbor in a couple of years. A private group, Baltimore Racing Development, is exploring the possibility of a "Baltimore Grand Prix" with open-wheel race cars with 670 horsepower engines zooming down Pratt Street at 190 miles per hour.

Think Monaco or Long Beach with 150,000 spectators lining the streets from M&T; Bank Stadium to the Maryland Science Center, and 5 million more sports fans tuned in to the nationally televised event.

Whether such an event is truly feasible in Baltimore, where four days of racing would likely inconvenience commuters and downtown businesses, is unclear. But the payoff in tourism dollars would be substantial - a potential $100 million boost for the economy. That's bigger than the Preakness.

It also demonstrates the kind of creative and ambitious thinking that the city needs if downtown is to succeed. The opening of the Harborplace pavilions three decades ago was not a final solution but merely a critical step in the right direction. Baltimore must embrace more new ideas and lofty dreams for downtown if that legacy is to continue through the 21st century.

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