Angling for tourists, city built a fish tank and hauled in dreams

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 11, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This is not a column about the 10th anniversary of the National Aquarium. From fish, I know only from herring with maybe a garlic bagel on the side. From the aquarium, I know only from $11.50 tickets.

"You gonna write about these expensive $11.50 tickets?" a lady from York, Pa., standing in line one morning last week, asks plaintively.

"Certainly not," I lie.

"You gonna write about our 10th anniversary?" a public relations person from the aquarium asks even more plaintively.

"Certainly not," I lie again, heading west toward the Harborplace Light Street pavilion and a little herring in wine sauce, which is a fish a man can sink his teeth into.

So what, exactly, are we doing here with five paragraphs already on the aquarium I am not going to write about?

What we are doing is writing about dreaming.

Some dream of catching fish, some dream of criticizing them. Ten years ago, the city of Baltimore dared to dream about itself when it was still considered mainly an act of faith to do so.

"The fish tank," people sneered. Remember? It'll cost too much money to build an aquarium, people said. Remember? We can't afford to spend money building an amusement when we have so many legitimate troubles, people said. Remember? What if we build it and nobody comes, people said. Remember?

We are sometimes a community that has to be dragged into the future, that has to be seduced into believing in itself. The naysayers would never have built Harborplace. There are still those dim bulbs who wistfully recall the "good old days" of the inner harbor's "natural" beauty: rotting piers and derelict winos and sea gulls who would have vacated the neighborhood years earlier only they couldn't navigate past the pollution.

The aquarium isn't so much a multimillion-dollar fish tank as it is a symbol of a city's triumph over its own fears.

A piece of us said: Let Washington do it, not Baltimore. Calling it a National Aquarium sounded too presumptuous for us.

Plus, it was too expensive, it was too frivolous. On the broad scale of things, fish didn't much matter, even with this community's historic ties to the sea.

But look what happened: In 10 years, the aquarium's drawn 13 million people.

About 70 percent of them come from out of town, and they bring money with them. A year ago, the state Department of Economic and Employment Development looked at all of them lined up along Pratt Street, and multiplied their numbers by ticket prices, and tossed in hotel prices and restaurant costs and such, and said these people were generating about $128 million a year for the region.

That means jobs (about 3,000 new hotel rooms in Baltimore in the last decade, for example), and state tax receipts (about $3.7 million a year) and city tax receipts (about $1.5 million a year) and it also means a sense of hope.

In Washington last week, we had Mayor Kurt Schmoke shaking hands with President George Bush. This city was one of 10 communities given the All America Cities Award. For a moment, it felt like National Feel Good Day.

But there was something that set your teeth on edge. The cities like Baltimore struggle for survival each day while the people in the White House have looked the other way for the last decade.

About 40,000 people here live in public housing, much of it dilapidated and drug-riddled, while another 34,000 families are on the waiting list for public housing. About 50,000 private housing units here are falling apart.

The city is home to about 60,000 drug addicts. The cops and the courts are breathless trying to keep track of them. In the last 20 years, the city's assessable tax based declined by about one-third. Half of all city households earn less than $22,000 a year.

Into this picture come the unwanted: About 60 percent of the city's babies are born to unwed mothers. About half the convicts in state prisons are from Baltimore. About half of all the people in Maryland living under the poverty level live here.

Does an aquarium sound frivolous in the face of all this? Of course -- if you see it merely as an amusement, instead of a fight against the darkness. The unexpected babies have to be supported and the unending drug addicts have to be arrested and the decaying houses have to be renovated.

This takes money, which does not come from nowhere. In the case of the aquarium, it comes from tourists, but it also comes from a city believing enough in its own future to build something that celebrates life instead of merely holding off the urban night.

A long time ago, a mayor named William Donald Schaefer talked of making Baltimore a tourist town. Everyone laughed.

Today, the aquarium's annual attendance is 1.5 million. The price of a ticket is $11.50 for adults and $6.75 for children. It's a lot of money.

But it also costs a lot of money to keep this city afloat while others are going under and the White House looks the other way. It costs money when a community hasn't enough jobs to go around and unemployed people turn to government for assistance. The government has troubles of its own.

So this is not a column about the aquarium and its 10th anniversary. From fish, I know mainly from herring. From aquariums, I know mainly from $11.50 tickets. But from such fish, and such tickets, I see a city that took a shot on itself, and the shot paid off.

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