Hoping to woo people back to Baltimore's downtown district, city officials and merchants are reviewing plans to improve overall security in the area and a proposed way of paying for the changes.
Better lighting and less garbage, more police patrols, an "eyes and ears" program for merchants and their security guards, and a voucher system to get food rather than booze to panhandlers are among the changes being considered.
Most of the plans in a report released yesterday by the mayor's Downtown Security Task Force would cost little.
But with another $13 million in state budget cuts to the city, and possibly more in the spring, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that an attractive option in the long term to improve services to downtown businesses is to designate the area a "special benefits district." Such a concept used in more than 1,000 communities nationwide, the task force said.
"I have to tell you, I support the idea of a special benefits district," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday, "and, hopefully, I can convince a lot of other people."
Such a district would require extra payments or taxes from the merchants in the downtown area in exchange for enhanced services.
More than 250,000 people pour into the district every day, according to the task force, a 50-member group composed largely of business people that Mr. Schmoke appointed eight months ago to examine downtown public safety issues.
More than 35,000 businesses operate in the district, according to the task force, and Mr. Schmoke said that "we would have to discuss with business people in the downtown district what level of commitment they would be willing to make" toward a special benefits arrangement.
In the meantime, Mr. Schmoke said he has asked Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods to beef up police patrols in the district, which is bounded to the south and north by the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon, and to the west and east by Howard and President streets, respectively.
There are also programs to designate block captains who will be responsible for improved communications between merchants and the police; to create a task force to improve the appearance and safety of the Howard Street corridor; and to start a pilot effort to recruit and train homeless persons -- or "people causing anxiety," in the parlance of the security task force -- to work on downtown maintenance crews.
The group also recommended that bus and taxi drivers be added to a city program for reporting suspicious activity; and that standards be established for improved lighting, maintenance and signs for parking facilities.
More controversial is a plan to create a voucher system for panhandlers. Local businesses would sell vouchers for food or laundry services to people who feel nervous about giving money to beggars.
"The stress comes when people wonder, 'Does he really want coffee, or does he want some non-coffee stimulation?' " Mr. Schmoke said.