Last week in Ocean City, professional promoters from all over the state gathered for the 29th Annual Maryland Tourism and Travel Summit, a schmoozefest and series of seminars on marketing and networking for those in one of the state's most important business sectors. (I was amused by the theme of one of the presenters: "Adding value to your product by making your product more valuable.")
I was asked to say a few words before the Maryland Tourism Council's awards ceremony, and I stated what probably seemed obvious to people who get paid to tout Maryland: Promote what's unique, and preserve it in the process.
There's blight on the American landscape and it's called sameness, or "the homogenization of the provinces." Too many chain hotels, chain restaurants and chain everything, fostered in mass culture by mass media and mass everything. If you're promoting Somerset County, tell us what you have that we can't find anywhere else. If you neglect what's unique - overlook the familiar because it's familiar - you're going to lose it forever.
That's what could happen to Baltimore's a-rabs. We could lose them because we have not done enough to promote them. Familiarity breeds contempt - and that's what city officialdom appears to have had for the a-rabs for a long time.
Two years ago, I presented a 10-point plan in this space for putting more of them back to work in a sustainable way. It wasn't the first time the mayor of Baltimore ignored my suggestions, but what can I say? If you're worried about getting indicted, some of the little stuff gets neglected.
So maybe, during a break in the trial, the mayor will reconsider this. Or, even better, maybe one of our civic-minded action heroes will come to the rescue.
1. Appoint a respected business leader to negotiate a new future for the a-rabs. The city has the responsibility to enforce the health code and the animal protection laws. But the city has been too dull-headed - in the Cafe-Hon-pink-flamingo-way, only worse - when it comes to working with the vendors to build a future for a-rabs. Let's put in charge someone who has no personal history with the a-rabs, someone with entrepreneurial enthusiasm and old-school common sense.
2. Recruit 50 new ponies and new handlers and educate the handlers in the care of the animals. Get a fund, make some loans. Establish a-rabbing as a sound career - hard work but a good living.
3. Exploit the "wow." The a-rab ponies, decorated to the hilt with colorful tack, have a real wow factor; they should be far more visible than they are today. Someone strolling along Pratt Street, or up Charles, should see them. They should pop the eyes of the couple looking to buy a house in Ashburton or Roland Park. We should provide a-rab parking spots at the Inner Harbor.
4. Fix the old stables and turn vacant lots into roomy paddocks. Knock down some crumbling rowhouses, put up some four-board fence and plant grass.
5. Build three new stables on the north, south and east sides so that ponies can serve residents there without the overly long trips some of them have made in recent years. From Dickeyville to Cherry Hill, from Northwood to Ten Hills, the a-rabs need to become part of daily life again. They should make regular stops at senior citizen centers, too.
6. Place cellular credit card systems on every a-rab wagon.
7. Establish an "A-rab Row" near Camden Yards so that sports fans can buy produce after games and the ponies can get some mug time on TV.
8. Establish an arabber museum, explaining the tradition and showing off the fabulous tack.
9. Provide a retirement plan for the older ponies.
10. Establish a sustainable connection between the vendors and Maryland farmers and organic gardeners. Baltimore is supposed to be "going green," so I would call this a "no-brainer" except we've had too little brain activity on the arabber front already.
Let's giddyup, folks. Promote the ponies, preserve them, or lose them forever.