Baltimore, which was catching bouquets only two years ago, received mainly slings and arrows this year in Fortune magazine's annual ranking of the best cities for doing business.
Ranked fifth among the business journal's top 10 cities as recently as 1989, Baltimore finished well down in the pack in this year's ratings, which will appear in the Nov. 4 issue. No overall ranking was given for cities that finished out of the top 10, but Baltimore was ranked 24th among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas in "access to quality labor" and 36th in pro-business attitude.
No direct comparison can be made with previous rankings because Fortune has changed its system of evaluating cities, but the magazine's implicit message is clear: Baltimore is going downhill.
For the second straight year, Fortune's capsule assessment of the city made special mention of the problems of the city's school system -- but this time the message was even more harsh.
"Survey respondents ranked Baltimore near the bottom for public education," the magazine said.
Fortune's review of Baltimore's business climate was not entirely negative. Citing costs that are lower than in other Eastern cities, Fortune calls Baltimore "a candidate for companies needing a site in the Washington-New York corridor."
That tepid endorsement did little to console Baltimore's boosters. Susan Eliasberg, vice president for marketing of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said she was "disappointed we're not in the top 10."
Ms. Eliasberg said she was surprised by the low ranking for business attitude. "I think we have a very strong pro-business attitude throughout the community."
Clinton R. Coleman, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's press secretary, said that "the mayor's attitude toward business is very positive and hasn't changed" since the city got glowing notices from Fortune in 1989.
"It does appear they used different criteria this year, putting more emphasis on some of the problem areas we've been continuing to work on," Mr. Coleman said.
In fact, Fortune's new criteria placed added emphasis on costs because of recessionary pressures on businesses.
Besides costs and schools, criteria included: a flexible, quality work force, proximity to markets, pro-business attitude, air service, highways and "quality of life."
Topping the survey, which took into account both statistical measures and a survey of business leaders, was Atlanta. Georgia's capital drew the same criticism as Baltimore did for poor public schools, but it was the "blowout winner" in the executive survey, Fortune said.
To some extent, the rankings reflect regional economic conditions. No cities in the recession-ridden Northeast made the top 10, while seven Southern or Southwestern cities made the list.
It is unclear how much impact rankings like Fortune's actually have on where companies locate. Ms. Eliasberg said she doubts many business decisions are made on the basis of magazine articles.
Still, such rankings are "something you can use if you're ranked positively," she said, acknowledging that the city development agency still distributes the 1989 "Top 10" article in its press packets.
As for this year's article, she said, "I don't think we'll reprint it."