Empowering Baltimore and beyond

January 11, 1995

The federal empowerment zone designation for Baltimore that Vice President Al Gore Jr. came to town to tout yesterday should not be viewed simply as city news or as a short-term political boost for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election bid. It is a story of regional significance that may come to have a profound effect on the bedroom communities 30 miles outside the city boundaries.

The decay of urban neighborhoods led people to establish residence farther from the core -- with business in tow. As the empowerment zone helps to create jobs and stabilize Baltimore neighborhoods with $325 million in government grants and corporate tax breaks, it will ease the pressure on families to flee. Of course, the out-migration genie is already out of the bottle. While Baltimore's population dropped by nearly one-quarter in the past 40 years, the suburban counties grew threefold. The infrastructure for those counties is in place and they're inhabited by many second-generation suburbanites whose ties to the city are tenuous.

If it takes a stretch of the imagination to view the empowerment zone in terms of attracting the middle class back to Baltimore, it's worth recalling that the same could be said 30 years ago of the vision that tourists would one day flock to the then-ratty downtown harbor area, or that subdivisions and strip shopping centers would sprout like dandelions in the former domain of dairy cattle.

Some will look at Baltimore's population drain over the past two generations and the corresponding boom in the suburbs and see only an inverse relationship: City's loss = suburbs' gain.

But the relationship is much more complex than those numbers suggest. While Baltimore's residential areas suffered, its Inner Harbor renaissance heightened the image of the region as a whole -- benefiting the suburbs as they vied for business. If the empowerment areas jump-start a residential revival in the city, the suburbs will benefit, too. Suburbanites are increasingly disgruntled over growth, loss of open space and an increase in crime. Without a vast road system expansion that faces major obstacles, more-distant commutes between home and work will become increasingly difficult. It is conceivable that the baby boomers who helped fuel a move away from the cities to raise families will return as empty-nesters seeking smaller homes and more manageable commutes.

In the engine of population growth, this empowerment zone can be viewed as a spark; the larger demographic swings are the gasoline. There is no doubt that the city and suburbs will look dramatically different a generation from now. The key -- which the empowerment zone may facilitate -- is to make them both more livable.

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