WELL, at least USF&G can't take its building with it when...

January 23, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WELL, at least USF&G can't take its building with it when it leaves.

At 529 feet, it's the city's tallest, and tall buildings are to many people a symbol of a city's vitality.

We are already in bad shape, skyscraperwise. Charlotte has two buildings taller than that. So does Jacksonville. So does Indianapolis. Tampa has three. St. Louis has four.

Of course, what really hurts Baltimore is that USF&G can take its 767 employees out of downtown. If they spend on average only about $5 a day on parking, lunch and casual shopping, that's $1 million a year out of the stream.

So another few dozen jobs soon will be lost, and a small enterprise or two will fail, which will lead to -- Well, you know where it will lead: to more Baltimoreans moving to and working and investing in Columbia, Towson, Bel Air, Severna Park. . .

The city, state and federal governments are trying to do something about this. The day USF&G announced its perfidy, Mathias DeVito and Claude Edward Hitchcock came by The Sun to brief editorial writers on their start-up plans for an Empowerment Zone. This seeks to provide jobs and expanded social services in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

DeVito and Hitchcock are as talented and dedicated to their cause and as gallant as, say, Robert E. Lee. And maybe as doomed. There have been plenty of "Empowerment Zone"-type efforts to save the city before. This one may be, as DeVito put, it, our last chance. Because, as he says, if this one fails, it is likely that the provider of the big bucks, the federal government, will write poor cities off as a Lost Cause.

I'm gloomy. It seems to me this Empowerment Zone won't achieve the one thing above all others that the city needs. That one thing is to grow the middle class.

The Empowerment Zone approach includes giving income tax credits to hired hands who both live and work in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods. That's a very good idea, except for two things.

One, the employers, who may live and maintain corporate headquarters in Owings Mills or Salt Lake City, get the tax credit. (USF&G could qualify.) Two, the jobs we are talking about pay about $15,000 a year. Such are greatly needed in distressed neighborhoods, but they are not enough. If the city is to be revitalized, is to become economically healthy, it's going to need those workers' bosses and other well-paid entrepreneurs and professional folk as residents.

Is there a way to get such people back into cities? The flow is the other way. (Don Schaefer holds the record for lost middle class population by a mayor. Kurt Schmoke has seven years left to beat him, and may.) Here is one simple way to reverse the flow that I think would help a lot. It comes from Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith. "Do [it] now: Eliminate all existing urban grant programs and give a 15 percent federal tax deduction to all residents of large cities."

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