Shaking the Money Tree of Tourism

September 20, 1993

After nearly six years of trying to figure out a workable economic development strategy for Baltimore City, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has settled on the hospitality industry. He made that clear last month by creating an advisory commission on tourism, entertainment and culture to "reach our potential at a time when we have more tourist attractions under development than at any other time in Baltimore's history."

Since the inauguration of Harborplace in 1980, tourism, entertainment and culture in Baltimore City has become a $1 billion industry, employing more than 12,000 people and generating annual tax revenues of $20 million for the local government and $43 million for the state. Yet a consultants' report by Hammer, Siler, George states that "Baltimore is missing valuable opportunities for achieving greater economic benefits from tourism."

The Schmoke administration has now chosen a failed entertainment area near the Inner Harbor as its chief redevelopment target in hopes of attracting more tourist dollars to Baltimore.

That's why the mayor wants to spend $12.5 million to construct a make-believe canal in the middle of Market Place and fill it with old-time barges and fishing schooners doubling as vendors' kiosks and outdoor cafes. That's why he is threatening the owners of the boarded-up Fishmarket entertainment complex with condemnation unless they reopen. That's why he is trying to turn the troubled Brokerage building into a national center for children's advocacy groups and open a children's museum nearby.

"We feel the time is now for the whole area to be successful," Mr. Schmoke said, referring to the cumulative impact of the $161 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and a $32 million virtual-reality sports extravaganza.

After the Market Place area bombed so badly as the recession set in, many Baltimoreans may be skeptical. But a new momentum is developing. Nothing was basically wrong with the Fishmarket or Brokerage concepts. Both projects collapsed under unrealistic debt burdens.

With the city having acquired the Brokerage at a fire-sale price and now talking about taking control of the Fishmarket -- which owes back taxes and has more than a dozen liens lodged against it -- the vicious circle of unworkable numbers may at last be broken. There is no reason why the Fishmarket could not be enormously successful, perhaps as a country and western music venue.

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