Baltimore's fate rests in its ability to forge alliances with th outlying counties -- ties that would give the city political clout in Annapolis and make it more attractive to suburban consumers -- according to a report by a team of urban specialists published today in The Sun.
"Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J.," the report says.
And, to save the city's declining school system, the report advocates what are called "charter schools" -- which could be set up by qualified groups with public funds and operated almost autonomously.
"Baltimore and Beyond," commissioned by the Abell Foundation, the product of a two-month study of the future of Baltimore that was directed by Neal Peirce, an author, columnist and urban specialist.
Working with Mr. Peirce were three colleagues -- Curtis W.
Johnson, director of the Citizens League in Minneapolis-St. Paul; Carol Steinbach, contributing editor of the National Journal; and Lenneal J. Henderson Jr., a professor at the University of Baltimore.
The Sun provided a small portion of the financing for the study, edited the report and agreed to publish its findings.
The Peirce team interviewed political and business leaders, civic activists and scholars, neighborhood leaders and environmentalists -- promising anonymity to all.
While the report recognizes the charm of Baltimore's "exquisitely preserved" neighborhoods and "glittering chain of waterside projects," it says the city is on a free-fall decline because an unfair property tax rate, troubled schools, lethargic leadership by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and crime-wracked neighborhoods are forcing a flight of the middle class.
Mayor Schmoke took sharp issue with Mr. Peirce's conclusions.
"Not only do I disagree with its general assessment of the status of our city, but I specifically disagree with the assessment of my administration," Mr. Schmoke said through his spokesman.
"And I know other objective observers have reached more positive conclusions."
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, did not respond to a request for comment on the Peirce team's conclusions.
The report says that help for what Mr. Peirce characterizes as a failing city should come from Baltimore's neighboring counties, which in turn would reap economic and social benefits from a thriving city.
But proposing such alliances is politically dangerous, the report
says, because the relationship between the city and the counties is adversarial -- at times even hostile.
"County residents, who rarely see a need to go to the city anymore, seem to feel that as long as Harborplace or the Orioles survive, the rest of Baltimore could slide into the bay," the report says.
"A political hacksaw hovers over the neck of any county official who suggests meaningful assistance to the troubled inner city," adds the report.
"A Baltimore politician will be pilloried for giving up an ounce of the city's autonomy, now that blacks are finally in full control."
Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden took issue with the contention that there was no regional cooperation between the suburbs and the city.
He said that Baltimore County was already working with the city on various projects, including recycling and waste disposal.
"I don't think people of any jurisdiction -- like Anne ArundelHarford or Howard counties -- are averse to working together with others, including Baltimore," he said, "as long as they know the results are going to be positive."
Robert Keller, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, agrees that regional cooperation is vital if Baltimore is to thrive. But he acknowledges there are several impediments to regionalism.
"The reality is we have some examples where there has been regional cooperation on a project basis, such as light rail," he said. "Having said that, we have miles and miles to go, and it is a difficult issue and not one that lends itself to a silver bullet. There are some things, including governmental structures, that work against it."
The report said that one way Baltimore could win the favor of its neighbors and the confidence of its residents was to overhaul its deteriorating school system.
The answer: charter schools that could be established with public funds by virtually any qualified group interested in running a school. Such a school system would give administrators the freedom to hire the teachers of their choice, and parents could choose the school they wanted their children to attend. The competition spurred by such schools would elevate the whole system.
"There needs to be something that shakes up the current arrangement and forces us to look at things in a totally new way," said Arthur Boyd, executive director of the Metropolitan Education Coalition, a statewide education advocacy group that will release a report on the parental choice system next week. "This is a contribution to that process, and it is positive.