Baltimore: Handouts Not Enough

August 27, 1994

There was much parochial outrage three years ago when urbanologists Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson suggested that things were not looking good for Baltimore. "While the city boasts a glittering chain of waterside projects, it also is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year," they wrote. "Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J."

The hiring freeze ordered by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is another reminder that this bleak prediction could be on target. Unlike the rest of Maryland, the city is not recovering from the recession. It keeps on losing businesses and jobs. The exodus of middle-class residents continues unabated.

The flight would be worse still, except that many families are having difficulty selling their houses. Meanwhile, residential and commercial assessments are declining, reflecting plummeting prices.

All this has created a situation in which the city's revenue base is losing ground. Next year's revenue growth is estimated at only 1 percent. Since budgets expand more than that just to keep up with inflation, Baltimore's municipal government is effectively operating in the red.

By freezing all new hiring, except for police and teachers, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hopes to save enough to avoid layoffs. In the long term, however, the city will need "important assistance" from Annapolis and Washington, the mayor says.

Granted, the city needs outside aid. But it cannot survive solely as a ward of the state. In order to be a viable city and economic force, Baltimore needs to bolster its existing private-sector employers and attract new ones capable of creating jobs.

Mr. Schmoke must step-up economic development efforts and other self-help projects. In particular, the city could use -- and successfully draw -- niche companies, whether they be microbreweries, building restoration specialists or arts and crafts suppliers. They may not be huge employers, but would offer jobs just the same. Moreover, their arrival would create a sense of Baltimore being on the go, which currently is sadly missing.

There is no substitute for economic development. A city simply cannot -- and should not -- build its existence on the basis of handouts from outsiders. That is courting disaster.

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