In Baltimore, economic ties that bind

Kurt L. Schmoke

October 24, 1990|By Kurt L. Schmoke

THE BALTIMORE metropolitan region's popularity and achievements are indisputably tied to Baltimore's redevelopment, which began in the '60s and continues today.

Initially it was fueled largely by federal generosity and concern for cities, characterized by an outpouring of funds and resources. As that era has ended, so, too, has the innocence about Baltimore and its budgetary constraints. In addition to the loss of tens of millions of federal dollars, since 1950 Baltimore has lost almost 200,000 residents and thousands of manufacturing jobs.

The most dramatic evidence of the economic challenges that lie ahead -- and of the city's willingness to make hard and unpopular choices for the public good -- came last winter. We had to restrict library hours, maintain a strict hiring freeze and announce that 1,044 positions (including 500 occupied positions) were to be cut from the budget.

The layoffs received much attention, but they were only a small part of the reduction in force that has quietly been taking place in city government. In total, my administration has eliminated nearly 1,500 positions from the city payroll. Nine hundred of those were eliminated in one year.

Some may wonder why a city with fewer people still spends more per capita on services and employees than surrounding counties. The answer is that although Baltimore's population is smaller, the needs of its people are larger.

With a decrease in the number of middle-income residents, the city is left with a disproportionate percentage of the region's most vulnerable citizens, including those with the lowest incomes, least education and most critical health-care needs. For example, although only 15.6 percent of the state's population lives in Baltimore, the city is home to 59.2 percent of the state's welfare recipients. The rate of welfare dependency here is more than seven times that of the rest of the state. Over half of Baltimore schoolchildren come from homes designated as economically or socially disadvantaged. Forty thousand of our citizens live in public housing, and we have more than 31,000 pending applications.

Baltimore is a city with less wealth and fewer people, but what has not diminished is our importance to the region. We are still a major source of workers and consumers -- present and future. Baltimore is still the magnet that draws resources, residents, businesses and tourists. Baltimore is still home to the region's outstanding recreational, cultural, medical, education and research institutions. Baltimore is still the hub of Maryland's transportation system, a role that will soon be bolstered with the light rail system. Baltimore is still a city with vital ties to the nation's capital and to sister cities around the world. Baltimore is still the sports mecca of Maryland. Our position as the destination for area sports fans will be magnified when our new downtown baseball stadium opens.

The region benefits from all these resources, but often Baltimore disproportionately pays for them. As just one example, Baltimore invests about $10.5 million per year in its cultural institutions, or $14 for each citizen. (That's more than 10 times as much per capita as Howard County and about seven times as much as Baltimore County.)

Moreover, the city continues to move forward, spreading attention and resources throughout downtown and into the neighborhoods according to cohesive, comprehensive plans. One result of this approach is the Nehemiah Project that will increase affordable housing and stimulate community-based revitalization in Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North. Another is the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration. When it opens in 1992, it will become the Cape Canaveral of marine exploration and the impetus for many new industries in Baltimore.

When I say that one day I hope Baltimore will be known as the "City That Reads," I am not expressing a selfish desire. The children in the classrooms of Baltimore schools represent a major portion of the potential future workforce for central Maryland. For the future of Maryland, Baltimore public schools must be properly funded. If this goal is not realized, Maryland businesses may discover that although there are sufficient numbers of people to hire, they cannot find people with adequate skills or expertise.

When it comes to Maryland's future, the city limits are meaningless; Maryland's economic prosperity is indivisible. An educated workforce, expanded tourism, the ability to attract new businesses, our place in history, the tangible and intangible rewards gained from helping children reach their full potential -- all these and more are at stake. And all these and more are possible if we think of Baltimore not as a place apart but as a part of the whole.

Kurt L. Schmoke is mayor of Baltimore.

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