USF&G Exits Downtown

January 21, 1995

USF&G Corp.'s decision to move out of its Inner Harbor signature tower to its corporate campus in Mount Washington is another blow to Baltimore's downtown business district. Earlier this week, First Fidelity Bancorp caused a shock by announcing that about 500 employees of the Bank of Baltimore it acquired would lose their jobs by summer.

These moves symbolize the strictly bottom-line approach of managements that are turning around companies previously teetering on the brink of disaster as a result of 1980s excesses and misjudgments. Such managements are scrambling for savings, whether they be in lease expenses or personnel costs, without much consideration of the consequences for the community. Streamlining and downsizing, after all, are measures that investors and Wall Street like.

It has been Baltimore's fate during the recent decade to become increasingly a branch office town. This trend was hastened by the nationwide banking crisis that led to a wholesale takeover of Maryland's leading financial institutions by out-of-state powerhouses. As a result, only two major Baltimore banks -- Mercantile and Provident -- remain locally owned.

This weakening of local decision-making clout has caused a palpable crisis of corporate civic leadership in Baltimore. This is exemplified by the continued lethargy and lack of focus of the Greater Baltimore Committee -- and the start-up troubles of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce.

The disappearance of hundreds of white-collar jobs from the Inner Harbor area is not going to make things any easier. Retail and service sectors will lose customers. Executives may enjoy the athletic facilities and sylvan vistas of the suburbs but they will become removed from the vital concerns of the city. The community will suffer.

Meanwhile, a less noticed exodus is going on.

Item: After closing its 55-year-old store on S. Calvert St., Dahne & Weinstein went downmarket with a Parker & Royal jewelry store. That, too, has now been closed and the site will become a McDonald's fast-food restaurant.

Item: After decades in various downtown locations, J.F. Grottendick & Sons recently moved its church supply store to Catonsville.

Each time this happens, jobs are lost and people have less reason to come downtown.

We hope that another company will quickly grab USF&G's space in the Light Street tower, rename the building and assume a civic leadership role. Without chief executive officers who breathe city air and exchange ideas in chance encounters or in public functions, Baltimore simply cannot maintain a dynamic corporate civic culture.

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