As expected, the latest assessment of downtown Baltimore shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has been unkind to retail centers, tourist attractions and the hospitality industry, and that the city still grapples with shooting deaths, population loss and neglect of the once-thriving Harborplace pavilions. But, and perhaps this is the biggest surprise, the metrics really aren’t so bad, particularly in residential growth and robust property values.
To paraphrase a writer with a fondness for Americana and waterways, reports of the death of downtown have been greatly exaggerated. Baltimore’s center may be slightly faded, but it surely has not fallen. As the recently released annual report of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore points out, nearly as many people called downtown home in 2020 as did in 2019, 42,336 to 42,706. Under the circumstances, that’s incredible. The downtown economy had been doing well pre-pandemic. Harbor East, in particular, has been a growth center. Upscale condominium living is on the rise. The Inner Harbor may seem a ghost town today, but that’s at least partly because so many workers from T. Rowe Price investment advisers to Mercy Medical Center doctors now telecommute. Yes, office vacancies rose last year but not by all that much — 23.3% compared to 17.75% in 2019. Many of those people are eventually coming back downtown to work. But will the city be ready for them? Will they feel welcome? And will the tourists return with them?
There are the questions Baltimore needs right to address now to revive its downtown. High on the to-do list are: improving public safety and master growth plans, restocking restaurant staffing and cleaning up streets. But one element should not be overlooked: Any effort needs razzle dazzle.
July 15 will mark the 40th anniversary of an event that symbolized what sold a lot of visitors on Baltimore — on its pluckiness, its oddity, its showmanship. That was the day that the city’s mayor, William Donald Schaefer, dressed in a vintage swim suit and straw boater and, clutching an inflatable Donald Duck, dove into the National Aquarium seal pool. The circumstances are almost immaterial. (He had promised to jump in a tank if the aquarium did not open on time; it didn’t, and he jumped.) The event made headlines around the globe and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — turned from gritty seaport to showcase public park and shopping arcade years earlier — was now widely regarded as the ideal day trip from D.C., Philadelphia and beyond.
Attractions like the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center still stand, but the novelty and upkeep of the Inner Harbor have not withstood the test of time. Indeed, public investment in downtown has sometimes spurred resentment just blocks beyond. Why so much for the wealthy, largely white-owned businesses instead of the less-affluent, predominantly Black-owned neighborhood mom-and-pop shops? Or for community redevelopment generally? Yet such thinking suggests a zero-sum game when a thriving downtown yields benefits for everyone, including providing 16% and 17% of income and real estate tax revenue to city coffers despite representing just 4% of city land. In reality, Baltimore needs to do all of the above — with vigor.
And it requires some salesmanship. There are marketing professionals on the case, of course. But Baltimore needs to think big, and not just the customary slogans or TV ads or billboards. Mayor Brandon Scott does not need to be the next P.T. Barnum, but we could use a touch of the circus (not the scary clown kind). Post-pandemic, Baltimore ought to be on the map for Fidelity Investments as the Boston-based firm expands its workforce, it ought to be on the map for the family of four living in Rockville who have their vaccinations and want to venture forth. Challenge D.C. to a Top Chef style crab cake war? Or maybe a rapper battle? Open the world’s first outdoor COVID-19 history museum (paging Johns Hopkins)? Conduct the nation’s largest face mask bonfire when the pandemic is past? Baltimore needs a downtown that is safe, clean, prosperous, dynamic and, yes, at least a little bit fun.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.