Rodricks: Reconsidering Baltimore's economic power

In the continuing growth, city boosters see good news — evidence the riot that drew national attention to Baltimore in 2015 won’t have a long-term impact on the city’s economy. (Baltimore Sun video)

A Goucher Poll in February found that a significant majority of Marylanders disagreed with the oft-heard assertion that Baltimore is the economic engine of the state. That's a reflection of a lot of things — three depressing years of insane violence; a general perception that opportunity, affluence and political power have shifted to other areas of the state; impatience with the city's progress on several fronts, particularly public education.

The result of the poll, with two-thirds of Marylanders rejecting the "economic engine" characterization, is as understandable as it is unfortunate.


Baltimore has been through a rough period, and the slide could be dated to Freddie Gray's death of injuries suffered in police custody three years ago this month.

The time before seemed relatively stable; by several measures — some quantifiable, some perceived — the city appeared to be making progress.The time since has been marked by persistent and debilitating violence and a sense of foreboding that, for all the city's attributes and amenities, remains hard to shake.

The notion that Baltimore is the "economic engine" of Maryland is virtually a cliche in state political circles, but two-thirds of Marylanders disagree, according to a Goucher Poll.

That Baltimore is no longer seen as Maryland's economic engine is a consequence of all that.

But that perception could change in the next couple of decades if political leaders capitalize on the city's economic assets, and if the young people who live here demand that they do.

A new report from the Brookings Institution puts Baltimore in one of the strongest positions for economic growth among 70 of the nation's older industrial cities. That's not wishful thinking but an assessment based on research and analysis by Alan Berube, a Brookings senior fellow who studies economic and demographic trends and the role of cities in the global economy.

Berube and his associate, Cecile Murray, offer 75 pages of data and commentary on cities from the East Coast to the Midwest that were once manufacturing hubs.

The old cities have struggled to sprout jobs in the digital age, and, as a result, they have seen uneven growth. Still, those older cities hold great promise as economic engines for their regions and states.

Podcast: Why Brookings is bullish on Baltimore


Because they already account for a significant percentage of the country's population. They have universities, high levels of research funding and educational attainment. They attract a younger, more diverse workforce as boomers head to retirement.

"We should focus on our cities," the Brookings report says, "because their assets in a technology-driven, urbanizing, diversifying economy and society make them promising centers for efforts to broaden growth and opportunity in the United States."

It has now been three years since Freddie Gray was pulled from the back of a Baltimore police van with fatal spinal cord injuries, and the process to ensure a similar incident never happens again is still very much underway, and Gray's legacy is still being written.

But nothing happens — indeed, the situations in older cities could get worse — without political vision and will. Baltimore won't see big, tipping-point change without inclusive growth that reaches more of its citizens.

"Baltimore is one of the most prominent illustrations of that proposition," Berube says. "If you were to just measure Baltimore in its economic health by how its white population is doing, it would look like one of the most successful cities in the country. It has one of the highest rates of educational attainment [and] per capita income for its white population.

"But it's the almost two-thirds of the city's population that isn't white that is really the key to unlocking broader economic growth in the city ... and ultimately that's what's important for sustaining the consensus for pursuing growth in cities. If half or two-thirds of the population of the city isn't benefiting from it, why would they support policies intended to promote growth and development? Sustaining that consensus democratically depends on bringing everyone along."

As I read the report, I thought of the Red Line and Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to kill that $2.9 billion light rail project, one that would have provided access to good-paying jobs to people in Freddie Gray's West Baltimore. Government investment of that scale and nature is exactly what Baltimore needs. Same with the now-scrapped transit-oriented State Center redevelopment project that would have provided a bridge between relatively affluent white communities and predominantly poor and black ones.

Black workers in Baltimore are concentrated in low wage industries and jobs, a study released Monday by the Associated Black Charities shows.

"All of the signs of where the national and global economy are headed point very directly toward cities," Berube says. "That's where the high-value jobs are going, that's where new generations want to live, and it's very hard to imagine over the next 30 years that the Maryland economy as a whole can succeed, can sustain its position of economic advantage, if the city of Baltimore isn't healthy. Companies aren't going to invest in Maryland if there isn't a thriving economic center to the state like Baltimore."

The Brookings report rated Baltimore and 16 other cities as "strong" in their position to adapt to economic trends.

"Baltimore has a lot of assets," Berube says. "It is a research powerhouse. It's got a very dense employment cluster in and around its downtown, much more than most U.S. cities. And it has an increasingly engaged workforce, with a much higher share of its adults working today than 15 years ago."

Capitalizing on that takes an understanding of the forces shaping the future economy and the vision and political will to stay focused on making Baltimore again the state's economic engine.

Says Berube: "I don't think there's any other way to go."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun