Develop Baltimore from within

What a deal.

Last week, the Baltimore Brew reported that the Rawlings-Blake administration agreed to recommend that $6 million in grants meant to mitigate the impact of traffic and other nuisances near Baltimore's planned casino site near I-295 should be used to reimburse the developer for infrastructure costs. According to a memo written by a policy advisor in the Mayor's Office of Government Relations and published in the Brew, a local development council, which the mayor has yet to appoint, is supposed to have advisory input on use of what are called "local impact grants." So, basically, the city promised CBAC Gaming a $6 million rebate and bet on its ability to persuade community representatives to pay for it. This is just one example of the way Baltimore is being packaged for — and, in some cases, sold to — people who don't live here.

We shouldn't be surprised.

In December 2011, during her inaugural address, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake spoke thematically about how she would move the city forward. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for and donated to one of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's opponents during the 2011 campaign.) "The sad truth is that too many good families and businesses left our city because [Baltimore] worked too slowly … or spent scarce resources on other things — all while the property taxes intended to pay for them became a greater burden," she said after setting a goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city. It's become clear that tourism is a big part of her plan. For example, while some questioned the wisdom of using scarce resources to host a street race, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has described the Baltimore Grand Prix as "an opportunity to put Baltimore on an international stage."

But because of how clearly it illustrates conflicts between competing interests, a complicated project like the "Superblock," the city's attempt to develop downtown's west end, may be even more indicative of the mayor's approach to renewal. Problems with the Superblock predate Mayor Rawlings-Blake, but they continue under her leadership. While the mayor has supported the idea of giving Baltimore residents priority consideration for jobs on the site once construction begins, her administration has not been willing to put any such requirement in writing. Many have questioned the necessity of millions of dollars in proposed tax breaks for the lead developer, and there have been fierce battles with historic preservation advocates concerned that the city has been too willing to tear down important parts of its past.

In May, the Superblock and other projects prompted the Daily Record to ask, "Is Baltimore mortgaging too much of the future on risky developments?" Three months later, a Baltimore Business Journal headline read, "Remove the stumbling blocks from the superblock." The editors pointed to the city's mismanagement of the project as the biggest impediment.

Baltimore needs to grow. There's no question about that. And many will benefit from a more vibrant Central Business District. But my fear is that the mayor has fallen in love with projects, not people — that she's more enamored of the affluent transplants she envisions than many of us who are already here.

A more robust economic development policy would include, among many other things, youth development. I've been taken with a term that Baltimore's Safe and Sound Campaign, a child advocacy group whose work I highlighted last week, is using: affirmative opportunity. If our real goal were providing more opportunities for the next generation of city leaders, we would minimize, not expand, children's contact with the criminal justice system and redirect the savings that come from a reduced dependency on incarceration to jobs, training programs and recreation. Seen in this light, the mayor's relative silence regarding the state's plans for a youth jail in East Baltimore is shocking on both moral and economic grounds.

There is so much potential. For example, although many religious congregations are already engaged in this work, many more, with guidance and support, would gladly translate their faith into community-building action. As a city proud of its diversity, we should do more to embrace and promote our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. And much more should be done to show the 120,000 college students who call the Baltimore area home that they can build a life in the city after graduation.

We need a growth agenda that respects the tremendous assets that are already here. But what we have at the moment is a mayor betting big on her vision of Baltimore and hoping that the rest of us will kiss the dice.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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