Special Attention to Downtown

January 30, 1992

Last year when the Schmoke administration merged the center-city's promotion unit into Baltimore's overall economic development organization, some critics wondered if that meant a faltering city commitment to downtown and its many problems. A clear answer has finally been given: The strong commitment is still there but the burden of financing downtown services and improvements is shifting to the private sector.

This is the essence of a proposal to levy a 5 percent surcharge on commercial real estate taxes on 1,000 private properties in a 90-block area from the Inner Harbor to Centre Street. The extra revenue collected would be used to supplement existing municipal sanitation and security services in the area as well as to promote it with shoppers.

Confronted with fiscal problems, cities throughout the nation have taken this kind of commercial surcharge approach to solving downtown management and image problems. Philadelphia adopted a tax surcharge for its downtown last year and produced instant and dramatic results. With a private corps of sweepers helping to keep streets clean and "public safety ambassadors" aiding uniformed police, shoppers felt more confident in doing business downtown. As a result, cash registers have been ringing happily despite bad economic times.

Baltimore's proposed special benefit district would include more than a half of the area currently overseen by the Downtown Partnership, a private management and advocacy group that has existed for the past decade on the basis of voluntary contributions. Mount Vernon, Mid-Town Belvedere and the Mount Royal Cultural Center would be outside the proposed district. That does not mean special attention isn't needed there. However, revitalization in those areas is still at such a delicate stage that property owners might not be able to shoulder the extra tax burden.

The special benefit district appears to enjoy wide support among downtown businesses. Whether the enabling legislation can be passed in Annapolis -- where it is in danger of becoming a hostage in broader political conflicts -- is unclear.

While Charles Center and the Inner Harbor ushered Baltimore into a period of much-needed commercial revitalization over the past two decades, many other once-thriving downtown areas are still searching for their niche in a changed market environment. The activation of the Howard Street light-rail line and the new Orioles baseball stadium at Camden Yards in a few months will bring thousands of first-time visitors to Baltimore's downtown. Investors also will take a new look. For those reasons alone, the special benefit district idea should be seriously examined.

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