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Sunshine lights downtown Baltimore after a fog bank rolled through.
Sunshine lights downtown Baltimore after a fog bank rolled through. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a decades-old nonprofit tasked with overseeing central downtown’s business improvement district, has recently launched a nationwide search for its next president. This follows the announcement last December that current president Kirby Fowler, who has headed the organization for some 15 years, will soon depart to become CEO of the Maryland Zoo.

Despite valiant efforts by the Downtown Partnership and others in recent years, Baltimore’s central business district continues to suffer from rising crime, failing infrastructure, general uncleanliness and a spate of high-profile store and restaurant closures. But there is good news as well, including Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement last year that several thousand state employees will relocate from the State Center complex on Preston Street to downtown office space.

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Downtown must put its best foot forward in 2020, and it is critical that whoever replaces Mr. Fowler have first-hand knowledge of the neighborhood and a willingness to explore strategic changes to improve the Downtown Partnership’s effectiveness.

The scope of the Downtown Partnership’s efforts has grown exponentially in recent years, and now includes a large team of high-paid office staff working on a wide variety of projects — from creative social events, to digital marketing campaigns, to promoting downtown at national and international trade shows. However, members of the community lament that the organization has also grown more institutional, less approachable and seems more concerned at times with growing its own brand than providing basic and direct street-level services to its members.

Stakeholders have remarked that the geographical scope of the Downtown Partnership’s work has expanded as well, such that much of its programming (particularly its marketing efforts and growing calendar of events) highlights businesses and properties outside of the Downtown Management District — those blocks at the heart of downtown that property owners pay a special assessment to have maintained by the Downtown Partnership. Indeed, the Downtown Partnership opted to hold its 2019 annual meeting at Cross Street Market in Federal Hill. It is no wonder that property owners endeavored at one point last year to form a new organization, the Center City Coalition, out of a frustration that key blocks in central downtown were not getting the attention they deserved.

The Downtown Partnership must get back to basics in 2020 with a laser-like focus on clean, green and safe streets within the Downtown Management District footprint. Most importantly, Downtown Partnership leaders must commit to re-engaging all of the businesses and property owners within the Downtown Management District and open up new lines of communication with those key stakeholders, creating more transparency as to how their special assessment dollars are spent.

Also, as the largest and most influential organization in a sea of similarly focused downtown improvement groups, the Downtown Partnership must do a better job of working with, and not against, its partner organizations. A newcomer in downtown Baltimore today is confronted by a complex web of nonprofit and quasi-governmental organizations all working toward roughly the same goal — improving quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors in and around downtown Baltimore. For those unfamiliar with the landscape, the list is long and includes the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, City Center Residents Association, Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Visit Baltimore, Market Center Merchants Association, Charles Street Development Corporation, Baltimore Development Corporation and others.

To lessen the confusion and duplication of effort that unfortunately has occurred in this space, the Downtown Partnership should consider taking the lead on working with these groups to craft a comprehensive plan for how we can all operate side-by-side cooperatively and efficiently. Increased collaboration with the new City Center Residents Association, which represents thousands of residents now living downtown, is especially critical as downtown continues its transition into a 24/7 residential community.

Finally, the Downtown Partnership must exude — in everything it does — a younger, more diverse and more optimistic energy and enthusiasm for Baltimore’s historic downtown, which was for years, and must become again, the center of Maryland commerce and culture. The reality is that central downtown is still seen by many (especially those under 30) as a dusty old commercial district — lacking both the streamlined luxury of Harbor East and the funky arts scene found in Mount Vernon, Station North or Hampden.

I grew up hearing stories of Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s “Do It Now” campaign, and of a time when everyone thought the world of downtown Baltimore. It’s time to bring that feeling back, particularly to the central business district. This must start with who we choose to lead the Downtown Partnership in 2020 and beyond.

William King (bmorebillking@gmail.com) is a Baltimore attorney, former Downtown Partnership Board member and founder and past president of the nonprofit City Center Residents Association.

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