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Was Camden Yards worth it?

Opening Day is almost here — time to renew a Baltimore tradition and celebrate the 20th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. With offseason renovations complete, the best ballpark in baseball looks more beautiful than ever.

The city's economic development office is excited, too. Tens of thousands of fans decked out in orange and black will spend money downtown, and a television audience will see aerial views of Camden Yards, with its attractive waterfront surroundings.

One lingering question, however, is whether the taxpayer-funded ballpark — and its neighboring football stadium — has done what its proponents promised.

"It's going to help us fulfill our dreams not only on the athletic field but in the field of economic development," pledged then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1992. "When you think about the number of jobs it will create and the number of people it will draw, it's great," added then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Herbert Belgrad, then chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, called the ballpark "the jewel" in Baltimore's "crown of redevelopment."

Just as Oriole Park started the trend toward retro-style ballparks, Baltimore became the model for using sports stadiums to spearhead downtown-focused urban renewal. The imitators are many: St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit have built downtown baseball and football stadiums as centerpieces of their redevelopment programs.

Clearly, this approach has made their downtowns more fun, but it comes at a steep cost: the hundreds of millions spent on stadiums were not available for new schools, better roads, improved parks or other infrastructure in neighborhoods.

None of the cities that banked on downtown "stadium stimuli" have reversed their population losses. Between 2000 and 2010, Baltimore lost 30,193 residents (4.6 percent of its population), St. Louis, 28,895 (8.3 percent), Pittsburgh, 28,859 (8.6 percent), Cincinnati, 34,340 (10.4 percent), Cleveland, 81,588 (17.1 percent), and Detroit, 237,493 (24.9 percent). Meanwhile, some cities that have refused to subsidize stadiums have fared much better.

Consider Boston. (Orioles fans understandably might not appreciate this comparison, but bear with me.) There, the baseball team plays in a 100-year-old ballpark that is privately owned by a property tax-paying entity. The football team plays in a suburb roughly 20 miles from the city's center.

Yet Boston is thriving. In fact, Boston city proper is much healthier and more vibrant than Baltimore City precisely because, three decades ago, Boston took a more organic approach to urban renewal.

Before 1980, Boston was in worse shape than Baltimore. From 1947 to 1972, manufacturing jobs declined by 43 percent in Boston versus 25 percent in Baltimore. From 1950 to 1980, Boston's population fell 30 percent compared to Baltimore's 17 percent. In the 1970s, Boston dealt with mob families and desegregation busing riots. By 1975, Boston's crime rate was higher than Baltimore's, and by 1979, Boston's median household income was lower than Baltimore's.

But in 1980, Massachusetts voters passed Proposition 21/2 , forcing Boston to cut its effective property tax rate by an estimated 75 percent within two years. The property tax cap instantly made Boston more hospitable to private investment and more attractive to employers and residents. Boston was set on a path to greater prosperity, increased public safety and enhanced quality of life.

Baltimore has focused instead on "big footprint" projects made possible by public subsidies and tax breaks for politically connected developers. Hearing our civic leaders enthusiastically promote the "game-changing" effects of such projects has become as much a Baltimore tradition as Opening Day. There's no doubt that we have a great waterfront where there is plenty to see and do, but a truly citywide picture of Baltimore still looks nothing like the downtown showcase we see during Oriole games.

While Boston has 10 percent more residents than it had in 1980, Baltimore has 21 percent fewer. Boston's inflation-adjusted median household income rose 51 percent between 1979 and 2009, but Baltimore's grew only 2 percent. We continue to struggle with high poverty rates and tens of thousands of properties that are vacant or in disrepair. The benefits of our redevelopment strategy have certainly not trickled down to communities throughout the city, where property tax rates are more than double those in the rest of Maryland (and Boston).

The lesson is clear: You don't need taxpayer-subsidized sports facilities to jump-start an urban economy. Indeed, having them in no way guarantees an urban revival. It's time for a new season in Baltimore: one that welcomes private investment to stimulate a genuine, lasting renaissance for the whole city.

Louis Miserendino is a member of the social studies department at Calvert Hall College High School and is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His email is

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