No Guts, No Regional Glory

April 02, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

While other urban regions around the United States have aggressively marketed themselves during the past 15 years, what has the Baltimore region done about self-promotion?

For the answer, look to Fortune magazine's evaluation of this area as one of the least business-friendly in the nation. Or the Cushman & Wakefield real estate brokerage firm's rating of the Baltimore region as a less than ideal place to locate a business. Or the fact that when an economic development outreach program for the region was finally launched last fall, a national consultant in the business-location industry responded, ''Congratulations. And it's about time.''

The founding of the Greater Baltimore Alliance deserves kudos. But the alliance is so long overdue that its creation underscores how slowly the public and private sectors have been in developing a detailed regional strategy, not just for development but for other important issues from solid waste disposal to crime-fighting to supporting the arts.

The first big local push toward regionalism happened in 1963, when a blue-ribbon commission recommended the formation of an area-wide problem-solving panel. Maryland legislators took the suggestion. They created the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, the forerunner of today's Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

However, lawmakers set the tone for future decades by rejecting the commission's second recommendation, to establish a metro agency to run jails, trash disposal, transportation and water and sewers in Baltimore and its neighboring counties. The vision was there; the political will was not.

Thirty years later, both the vision and the will to craft regional solutions are hard to find. Local leaders may try to talk a good regional game, but they lack the nerve to turn the verbiage into action.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the committee approach hasn't produced significant results. One of the subdivision chiefs should make up his mind to play the guiding role in bringing the area's fruitless pursuit of regionalism to fruition.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke is the obvious candidate for the part. But the mayor is not known as a man possessed of the fire and energy such an effort would require. Many stumbling blocks also would confront Mr. Schmoke, not all of them of his own making. For one, he is a Democrat surrounded by Republican county executives who know they could lose their jobs if they're seen by suburban voters as blatant regionalists, especially in recessionary times. Too many narrow minds in the 'burbs regard regionalism'' as a fancy word for ''wasting our tax dollars on Baltimore City.''

Antipathy toward the city is indeed a big problem, though it's one that could be overcome by a dynamic mayor -- or even a dynamic county executive, if one were up to the task. He (or she) would have to come up with do-able programs and sell them hard to the other elected executives by stressing the financial savings and other benefits for their jurisdictions. In other words, find a way to make regionalism a political plus instead of the minus it has been for too long. Let each suburban executive take as much credit as he wants for the positive payoffs. If politics has been the biggest obstacle to regionalism, then savvy politics could be the way to remove that obstruction.

At the same time, the business community has to begin pulling more of its weight. It's too easy for business types to blame the state government for damning them to so-called ''tax hell.'' They need to do a better job of marketing their products and region both nationally and worldwide. Moreover, they must work with government, rather than against it, if regionalism is to fly.

Another key element: a public relations campaign that would convince metro citizens that the health of each subdivision depends on its neighbors' health, just as a human body enjoys good health only when all its parts are sound. The giddy fun of city-bashing aside, a region with a sick ''heart'' runs the same risks as a body with a bum ticker.

It's past time for area residents to realize that geographic boundaries mean less as more people work, shop, play and educate their kids outside their home jurisdictions. Regionalism is no panacea, but it makes sense when weighed against the costs and hassles facing each subdivision that tries to solve all its problems by itself.

Our public and private leaders know this. Now if only they would do something about it.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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