A Confusing Kaleidoscope of Visions

June 02, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

Baltimore is trapped in a disorienting, ophthalmologic field of "visions."

First came the Abell Foundation-sponsored "Baltimore and Beyond" view of the city's future by urban affairs specialist Neal Peirce.

Then came the Greater Baltimore Committee's "new economic vision" for the region.

And this week comes the long-awaited report from Walter

Sondheim's special mayoral committee on a "vision" for the future of downtown Baltimore.

All these visionary statements are making us dizzy.

The Peirce study, while useful, is hardly a blueprint for charting the city's path. It is an impressionistic look of Baltimore and its problems.

Author Peirce offers thoughtful remedies as well as some approaches of dubious value. The study generated little public discussion, except among those who had been ignored by the Peirce group or whose notions for improving the local scene were overlooked.

Of far more import are the GBC and Sondheim reports. The private business group has identified a new focus for the city's economic future. The Sondheim panel this week will propose ways to inject new vibrancy and livability into the city's central downtown core.

Neither of these "visions" will happen, though, unless someone provides strong, determined leadership. At the moment, there is no certainty that this will happen.

Take the Sondheim report. If left to the meek managers of the Schmoke administration, the downtown study will simply be submerged under the weight of bureaucratic inertia.

It will require an assertive, aggressive commander to re-energize Baltimore's downtown. So far, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has given no sign he is that type of leader.

Similarly, the GBC vision, "Baltimore: Where Science Comes to Life" cannot work without a motivating force to lead the way.

Again, Mr. Schmoke seems ill-suited to quarterback this effort. He may have been a take-charge guy at City College, but in the mayor's office he hasn't yet figured out how to move his team down the field.

Baltimore's second leadership hope, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, is hardly in a position to come to the rescue. He remains under siege in Annapolis, his power waning as his administration continues its futile feuding with the legislature. Besides, he refuses to talk with Mr. Schmoke.

Others in Annapolis show even less interest in reversing Baltimore's declining fortunes. Legislative leaders are great at voicing platitudes about helping the city, but they turn petty and parochial when major monetary relief is proposed.

So if the Sondheim and GBC visions are to take hold, it will be up to the business community -- not the politicians -- to make it happen.

That already is occurring with the GBC report. The city's top business leaders have committed their organization to creating "a global life sciences community" aimed at spurring new prosperity for Baltimore in the 21st century.

The GBC is serious about re-orienting its activities so it can concentrate on bringing about this grandiose view of the future.

Equally important, GBC leaders recognize that to succeed, this thrust must have a strong grass-roots component. The entire community has to be committed to this "vision."

Neighborhood groups, civic clubs and PTAs have to buy into the idea of Baltimore as a center for biotechnology, marine research and medical sciences. They have to use their influence, for instance, to demand that city schools focus on training and educating students in the life sciences. They have to demand, as well, linkages to community and local colleges with specialized life sciences programs. They must press businesses to focus corporate ventures on the life sciences.

William Jews, the highly regarded hospital administrator who successfully merged Provident Hospital with Lutheran to form Liberty Medical Center, led the GBC group that devised the life sciences strategy. He is an impressive salesman. The direction he has plotted holds enormous potential.

There is already an outstanding life sciences infrastructure in Baltimore: the Hopkins and University of Maryland medical campuses; the budding biotech research campus at UMBC and Hopkins' Bayview research site; the city's proximity to federal researchers in the Washington suburbs; military research at Aberdeen and Annapolis; the soon-to-be-built Christopher Columbus Marine Research Center.

Add to that the clout of the Greater Baltimore Committee's membership and the potential for enormous investments in the life sciences could quickly take root.

If the business community exerts its considerable influence, if the GBC takes its message into the region's neighborhoods and schools, if executives back up their personal commitment with corporate investments that spawn job-producing life-science projects, Baltimore could indeed find itself with a new identity -- and new vitality.

Were that to happen, the mayor, the governor and legislators would be eager to jump on board the bandwagon, claiming the city's latest renaissance as their own.

No one would be squawking, though. The GBC would be pleased to share credit for its life-sciences vision with anyone willing to lend Baltimore a helping hand.

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