A Shrinking City's Possibilities

March 11, 1995

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. Even so, the likelihood that Baltimore's population will dip under 700,000 this year for the first time since World War I comes as a shock. The city that once was Maryland's largest local government will be No. 4 -- after Baltimore County and the Washington suburban counties of Montgomery and Prince George's.

The strong demographic shifts in recent decades have favored suburbs at the cost of aging cities. In Baltimore, the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s saw white families head for the suburbs. Census figures show that the African-American middle-class has now joined that flight in droves. They, too, want housing and shopping opportunities, a safer environment and better education.

The consequences of Baltimore's dramatic population loss are becoming clearer every day. As the middle class moves, major retailers and religious institutions are quick to follow. The city is left with a thin layer of the wealthy and a vast sea of the impoverished. The impact on the tax base, which has not yet been fully felt, could be devastating.

This is no time to give up and declare defeat, however. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the business community ought to concentrate on things that are doable and that could reverse this outflow of residents. Here are some suggestions:

* Give the middle class the type of housing it now seeks in the suburbs.

It is flabbergasting to think how long it has taken both private-sector builders and city officials to realize if garages are desirable in the suburbs, they are doubly necessary in the city. Yet the new Montgomery Square townhouses rising in Federal Hill and two clusters soon to be built near Cylburn Park are among the few developments where such amenities are provided.

* Do something about the unconscionably high automobile insurance rates in the city, which constitute an added penalty on urban living.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, encouraged by Mayor Schmoke, has made some interesting proposals in this respect. Later this year, the city's non-profit alternative insurance group should be in business. This kind of pressure may finally persuade major insurance companies to take another look at their strict adherence to territorial rating.

* Make the municipal government more responsive and user-friendly.

Nothing is more insulting to a city taxpayer than an uncaring bureaucrat. Mayors may come and go but taxpayers are here to stay and pay the bills.

* Get serious about streamlining city government and cutting city taxes.

There is nothing to lose.

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