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Op-ed

A recovery blueprint for Baltimore requires true city-state partnership | GUEST COMMENTARY

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore insists there can be no thriving Maryland without a healthy Baltimore. And he’s right, but the city won’t heal on its own. As governor, Moore will need to persuade city leaders to replace a disjointed and shortsighted approach to economic and community development with a strategic, long-term term plan for revitalizing neighborhoods and reinvigorating the economy.

If elected on Nov. 8 as expected, Mr. Moore should reach out to Mayor Brandon Scott and offer to begin work on a joint blueprint for all public investment in Baltimore, guiding the use of city and state resources in the form of direct funding or tax abatement to shape the city’s future. It must emphasize the well-being of residents, with particular focus on restoring the livability of long-neglected neighborhoods in the city’s “Black Butterfly.”

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The first step will be establishing a new entity to craft the plan. The new entity should include the best and brightest people that the governor and mayor can find, people with a vision for the city not distorted by the narrow interests of developers, and the owners of large businesses and commercial properties. Pursuit of those interests has produced a trickle-down economic development policy that has failed to help those who need it most. Too much money is spent on projects with negligible economic impact on the city as a whole, and city government and the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) — the quasi-governmental organization that serves as the city’s economic development agency — have ceded too much influence to people who benefit from those misplaced priorities.

Here’s another reminder of what happens when public investment is not dictated by broader community interests: the $16 million that the city has chipped in over the past three years to avoid default on the $300 million in bonds sold in 2006 to build the Baltimore Hilton in the hopes of increasing use of the city’s convention center. Cities consistently overestimate the economic impact of convention centers, according to Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of the 2014 book “Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities.”

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Similarly, studies show that public moneys used to build professional sports venues bestow little financial benefit on most residents of a city, and almost none on poorer residents. Nevertheless, $200 million to redevelop Pimlico Race Course and $1.2 billion to renovate M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park are in the pipeline.

Here’s something to think about in terms of priorities: About 24% of Baltimoreans live in a food desert. Enough grocery stores could be built to eliminate those food deserts at a fraction of the cost of the convention center hotel and sports venues. Maybe we need a Maryland Healthy Foods Authority to complement the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Massive tax subsidies for shiny new office buildings have succeeded only in shifting existing jobs from one part of Baltimore to another. Meanwhile, the city has not come up with a workable plan for solving one of Baltimore’s most vexing problems, vacant housing.

The lack of a thoughtful strategy for public investment has resulted in a system of property tax credits that the city’s Bureau of the Budget and Management Research says is “highly inequitable and collectively favors the stronger and more established neighborhoods.” It is not just tax credits that are problematic. Revenue lost through the tax increment financing of projects such as Port Covington also makes it harder to lower the city’s oppressively high property tax rate for ordinary residents.

Despite the necessity for change, not everyone in Baltimore will welcome increased state participation in formulating city economic and community development policy. The city needs a lot more money from the state to redress the effects of decades of disinvestment, however. It is more likely to receive that money if state legislators and state taxpayers believe that the city is investing its own resources wisely.

If things go as predicted, the mayor soon will be working with a governor and General Assembly leadership favorably disposed toward the city. There may never be a better time to form an entity acceptable to both the city and the state charged with developing a recovery plan for Baltimore.

A true city-state partnership is possible. One committed to making Baltimore a better place to live for everyone.

David Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.


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