Making Downtown Dynamic

February 22, 1992

In six weeks, two events will take place that could prompt a boom in downtown Baltimore: the spanking-new Orioles stadium opens and the light-rail link to Timonium commences. Yet many people are viewing downtown in 3-D, seeing it as a place that is dirty, dangerous and dilapidated.

That perception must be changed. Both Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke support the creation of a special tax district for downtown, with the money going to make downtown, once again, dynamic, dandy and delightful.

If city legislators in Annapolis have their hometown's best interests at heart, they will press hard for approval of enabling legislation to set up the special assessment district proposed by the Downtown Partnership and other business interests.

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

This approach is increasingly popular among American cities trying to make their commercial districts competitive with suburban malls. The surcharge, in fact, would enable downtown merchants to do exactly the same things that successful management companies do at suburban malls -- provide added security, stepped-up cleanliness and joint promotions in a well-defined location.

"Downtown has lost its retail sales for roughly 40 years. Hand-wringing won't do it any more," says a New Jersey expert on special assessment districts. "You have to provide the same business services shopping centers do."

In an effort to revive their one-time commercial hearts, about 1,000 communities in North America have gone this route. Many more -- including Baltimore County's Pikesville -- are thinking about it.

Center City Philadelphia instituted a special assessment district a year ago with great success. A special detail of street sweepers in distinctive uniforms keeps the shopping district spotless. A platoon of goodwill ambassadors, equipped with walkie-talkies, helps visitors and assists the police if problems occur. These are among the services paid through a surcharge on downtown real estate.

With the Inner Harbor on the verge of a second economic takeoff, a workable, coordinated strategy is needed to improve the city center's image. The special assessment district is such a strategy. The sooner it is implemented, the better.

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