One port looks at another's experience

June 19, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Peter the Great built his magnificent city here, gripped by the feverish desire for a port and an even stronger compulsion for Russia to look toward the west.

Visionary that he was, perhaps even Peter would be surprised to find his beloved city looking quite so far to the west as it is today -- to Baltimore, in fact, 4,500 miles away.

St. Petersburg has been studying Baltimore to get ideas on how an old port city can pull off an urban renaissance. A St. Petersburg delegation visited Baltimore last fall to get some inspiring words like UDAG, sale-leaseback, accelerated depreciation and CDBG.

Although Russian cities find themselves without the Urban Development Action Grants and Community Development Block Grants that William DonaldSchaefer used so adroitly as mayor, the message is getting through.

"Here's a good lesson I learned in Baltimore," said Leonid Romankov, chairman of St. Petersburg's Cultural Commission. "For every $1 spent on culture, tourists spend $11 on food and in hotels. When I want my City Council colleagues to spend more money on culture, I repeat this Baltimore equation."

St. Petersburg, Mr. Romankov said, does differ somewhat from Baltimore in its needs. "We don't need to create an aquarium, but to restore what we have," he said.

Oleg A. Kharchenko, St. Petersburg's chief architect, said Baltimore offers inspiration on how to get things done. "We're setting up agencies to develop separate areas, and this example comes from Baltimore," he said.

Mr. Kharchenko, who has visited Baltimore twice, politely manages not to roll his eyes when asked if St. Petersburg plans to duplicate Harborplace.

"Well, that was a rather small project," he said. "And our problem is different. We were shown photographs of Baltimore before the renaissance. It was a boring city on the edge of death. Petersburg is not in this condition. We have all the attractions we need."

Here, one of the big problems is decay. The lovely neo-classical palaces and boulevards that Czar Peter designed are crumbling, suffering from 70 years of neglect. It will take years and billions of dollars to shore up the city.

The economy is a disaster. People live on monthly salaries of $25 or less. Eighty percent of the city's 4 million population worked in the military-industrial complex, which is virtually out of business.

The basics of tourism are woefully lacking: There are only a few Western-standard hotels and restaurants.

The foreign investment that could help pick up the economy has been slow in coming, put off by political instability, absence of decent office space and housing, and the absence of workable banking, legal or telephone systems.

In one way, the decay is a good sign. After the Russian Revolution,

V. I. Lenin moved the capital to Moscow, which felt the full brunt of Communist construction. The ugly high-rises that deface it are largely absent from St. Petersburg.

But now, 70 years later, St. Petersburg badly needs attention.

A two-day meeting in Baltimore next week, sponsored by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, hopes to come up with ideas on removing some of the obstacles that keep foreign investors out of Russia.

Mr. Kissinger and St. Petersburg's mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, are co-chairing the meeting at the World Trade Center. Mr. Kharchenko also will be there, part of an 18-member delegation from St. Petersburg.

Business leaders from the United States, France and Finland are invited, and Marylanders have arranged a lunch at the Engineering Society to do some networking of their own.

The Baltimore-St. Petersburg connection was initiated by the Faberge Arts Foundation. Its founder, Joyce Lasky Reed of Chevy Chase, became interested in St. Petersburg renovation efforts and suggested that one port city might help another. Her efforts led to the "Baltimore Meets St. Petersburg" visit in October.

Alex. Brown & Sons began offering St. Petersburg financial advice, and two of its representatives -- Kevin Quinn and Gregory Barnhill -- starting working on projects to help the Russian city.

Last week, Mr. Barnhill attended the opening of a Faberge art exhibit in St. Petersburg. "When you have something like this, people are talking to each other," he said, looking around the crowded hall. "It's a pretty pleasant way of doing business.'

The various ties have led to sister state status. Maryland and the Leningrad District plan to become sister states on Tuesday.

While St. Petersburg can become marvelously beautiful once more, it faces monumental obstacles, such as money.

The Peterhof Palace, for example, has one of the world's greatest fountains -- three cascades, 64 fountains and 37 statues surrounding a golden Samson defeating the lion. The fountain requires a $2 million renovation -- and that is only one small piece of St. Petersburg.

One problem that often frustrates Westerners is the pace of change here. Mr. Romankov said that one of the city's biggest factories began building a cultural building for its workers right next to the apartment where he lives.

"They started when my son was born, and they're still not finished," he said. "My son is 24 now."

You can almost hear William Donald Schaefer thundering out from St. Petersburg's City Hall:

"Do it now!"

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