GBC's vision of Baltimore shows insight



Last week's economic vision statement from the Greater Baltimore Committee was an excellent beginning to the region's badly needed rejuvenation effort.

Using the catch phrase, "Baltimore. Where Science Comes to Life," the GBC envisions life sciences as the area's most promising potential engine of economic growth. If successfully exploited, this growing segment of the economy would be a strong enough engine to carry the entire area into a prosperous start of the 21st century.

That's pretty heady stuff. Baltimore has huge social problems and an eroding tax base, and its surrounding county neighbors are no longer the idyllic places of suburban dreams. Their economies are strapped, too, and their local governments are struggling to deal with the unmet growth pressures of the 1980s during what promises to be the relatively austere decade of the 1990s.

These difficulties are well known to the two dozen or so business and public-sector members of the advisory committee that selected and shaped the GBC's latest rallying cry for a more vigorous economy. They thus also know that making Baltimore a global leader in life sciences would represent a staggering achievement.

Making this vision a reality would entail no less than turning around the city's public schools, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new government and private research facilities and offices, creating an entrepreneurial culture for business (in a very tradition-bound business community) and enrolling the entire Baltimore community in the vision.

GBC President Robert Keller describes a successful vision as having "creative tension" between its mundane and basic components and those more ambitious and striving aspects that tend to dominate news columns and editorials.

On these terms, the GBC's vision seems to work well.

Life sciences is a mix of basic and leading-edge businesses. Health care is hardly a new industry, but many of its applications increasingly do reflect new knowledge, in fields that include biotechnology, medical and biological research and related technology.

Further, viewing life sciences as an economic engine hardly excludes the rest of the region's economy. Life sciences may seem "too small" to support an economic vision for the future, but it need not be. And the GBC properly includes a broad-based cast of businesses that would be full participants in an economy led by (but not restricted to) the life sciences.

The list includes conventions and tourism, printing and publishing, education and research, information systems, medical supplies and related packaging, design and construction support for related offices, warehouse space and research facilities and numerous professional services, including specialized legal and financial support.

Already, many of these businesses not only exist here but are prospering. That's the kind of real-world foundation a vision needs to have a shot at succeeding.

Visions also need tangible symbols, which can be hard to come by when you're talking about knowledge-based industries.

Here, too, Baltimore is well-positioned.

The view from downtown toward East Baltimore is dominated by the Johns Hopkins medical complex, whose continued expansion is already an engine for area growth. On the western side of downtown, the University of Maryland medical complex has embarked on an ambitious growth program that will create further tangible symbols.

The Inner Harbor, which is the substance as well as symbol of the city's renaissance, also contains some terrific focal images for life sciences.

The National Aquarium is already the city's most popular tourist attraction. The fact that it's viewed as fun as well as educational reflectsthe kind of attitude shifts that need to happen for science-based learning to become part of mainstream activities.

If the aquarium and Maryland Science Center reflect tangible symbols that are already here, the planned Christopher Columbus Center for marine research is an excellent symbol for future stages of a life sciences vision.

Even with the tightening of purse strings in Washington, the odds of winning the $50 million or so in federal funding needed to build the center are no longer seen as impossible. Getting this funding soon would still be a stretch, but this, too, is what

visions need.

As an amateur visionologist, I wrote several columns last summer about the need for Baltimore to adopt a new vision.

The Inner Harbor had given the city a great lift and restored confidence to many residents that Baltimore had the will and the ability to do great things. Now, I argued, it was time to build on those successes.

As difficult as revitalizing downtown's appearance had been, it was a relatively easy accomplishment to pull off compared to today's challenges, which involve nothing less than renewing the city's people.

I seized on education as Baltimore's best vision.

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