Planning under way for Baltimore bicentennial

January 24, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Baltimore has a bicentennial coming up -- and is looking for a few good ways to celebrate it.

With three years to go before the 200th anniversary of the city's incorporation in 1797, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has asked the recently-formed Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture (McTEC) to come up with ideas for marking the occasion.

Early ideas range from staging a series of family reunions to restoring vacant houses around the city, but none has been endorsed yet by the Schmoke administration.

"We're looking to do more than just a one-shot, one-evening, one-day event," Mayor Schmoke said. "We're trying to plan a theme for the year that looks back at some of the city's accomplishments over the past century and looks ahead to the next century, culminating in some kind of event" linked to the anniversary.

The mayor has charged the cultural commission with planning a celebration that draws visitors to the city over an extended period of time. "I want them to be as creative as they possibly can," he said. "I don't want them to feel constrained."

McTEC was formed last year to help coordinate the activities of Baltimore's many entertainment and cultural attractions and stimulate new opportunities for tourism.

Its executive director is Mary Sue McCarthy, a Baltimore native who formerly headed Baltimore Operation Sail, the mayor's official committee on visiting ships.

McTEC has an events committee headed by Bill Gilmore, director of the city's Office of Promotion, and Joan Davidson, a marketing executive with the Rouse Co.

That group is doubling as a Bicentennial Committee and will serve as a clearinghouse for ideas and suggestions, Mr. Gilmore said.

The goal is to plan a celebration "that looks toward the future of the city and is not a rehash of the past," he explained. "This is an event in 1997 that should really catapult us into the new millennium."

According to a mission statement, the bicentennial "will celebrate the city's diverse neighborhoods, historic areas and maritime heritage. At the same time, it will highlight Baltimore's endeavors in the fields of international business, professional sports, life sciences and community partnerships."

Emphasis is being placed on staging events and activities over an extended period, Mr. Gilmore explained, because "big, one-time celebrations have a tendency to flop."

"Baltimore Town" was founded by the Colonial-era General Assembly of Maryland in 1729 and for 67 years existed as a subdivision of Baltimore County. Its incorporation as a city took place over several months -- a fact that may aid those planning an extended bicentennial celebration.

On Dec. 31, 1796, the state legislature authorized the incorporation of Baltimore Town under the name of "Mayor and City Council of Baltimore."

But it was not until Jan. 31, 1797, that the state-appointed commissioners met and passed an act "to erect Baltimore Town in Baltimore County into a City . . . and to incorporate the inhabitants thereof."

Later that year, the commissioners divided the city into eight wards and elected their first mayor and council representatives. At the time, Baltimore was the third largest city in the nation, after New York and Philadelphia, with a population of more than 90,000.

It was also one of the nation's fastest-growing cities -- aided in part by the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, which prompted a mass exodus from that city.

Mr. Gilmore said planning for Baltimore's bicentennial has been under way since mid-1992, when the Office of Promotion convened a focus group to determine how much support there '' might be for a citywide celebration. He said the more than a dozen participants were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea.

One suggestion, he said, was to encourage city residents to hold large family reunions that would get people from all over the country to return to Baltimore.

Another idea was to fix up at least 5,000 vacant houses as a way of preparing the city for the 21st century.

To mark the city's 100th anniversary in 1897, Mr. Gilmore noted, Baltimoreans tried to erect a flag and flagstaff in Clifton Park, but it was toppled by the wind. In 1979, to mark the 250th anniversary of the city's founding in 1629, the Schaefer administration held a gala ball at the newly-opened Baltimore Convention Center.

In 1976, to mark the nation's bicentennial, then-City Council President and Bicentennial Committee Chairman Walter S. Orlinsky cooked up a giant birthday cake in the shape of the United States and floated it on a barge in the Inner Harbor -- "the world's largest birthday cake," according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

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