Business leaders lay future of downtown on themselves Partnership suggests that employers take lead from government

November 10, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

A group of Baltimore's top business leaders says appeals to loyalty won't work as a strategy for reversing the downtown's decline, and it urges the business community to take over much of the work from government in fighting the forces pushing people and jobs to the suburbs.

"It is not enough for downtown Baltimore to attempt to compete on civic value or urban guilt," says a 63-page study, "Probusiness Plan," from the Downtown Partnership. "Instead it must compete, and can compete, on price, value and quality of life."

The plan, which won early praise from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and downtown business leaders, says that social forces as grand as the technological revolution and as prosaic as panhandling are strangling downtown Baltimore.

Information technology, for example, is eroding the biggest reason businesses used to locate in cities -- the ability to communicate with customers easily by working near them, a reason that has been undercut by computers, modems and other machines.

The study's biggest departure from decades of reports on what to do about downtown is that the partnership calls for major downtown employers to do much of the heavy work instead of government.

"Our interests hopefully span over time, not over four years," said Frank Bramble, chairman of First National Bank of Maryland and one of three keynote speakers at a breakfast meeting yesterday to unveil the report to major downtown employers. "Our businesses are going to be here longer than chief executive officers are going to be here, and longer than public officials are ,, going to be here."

And the report highlights the shift in the nature of Baltimore's economy after years of corporate flight. Ninety employers control two-thirds of the jobs downtown, the report says -- and increasingly, the big job centers are hospitals, universities, foundations and other nonprofit institutions.

"University Center, between the [University of Maryland] medical system and the university, is exploding with growth," said Downtown Partnership president Laurie Schwartz, referring to a neighborhood just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. "Hospitals are big businesses now, and we have to treat them as such."

In that, Baltimore reflects what the information revolution is doing to cities nationwide. As factories shrink and services grow to the point that health care alone is nearly 15 percent of America's economy, urban areas have job bases that generate fewer but higher-paying, more specialized jobs, according to a ' congressional report released last month.

"Information technology basically gives companies and some individuals the opportunity to move and not suffer economic consequences," said Robert Atkinson, until recently a senior analyst at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. "The motivations for the moves are related to office space, taxation, labor costs, and also crime, traffic and pollution. Technological change is not one of the bigger [causes]. Technology is enabling this." Ms. Schwartz said downtown Baltimore has lost 5,000 jobs in the last four years, and that the value of downtown real estate has dropped 30 percent in the last three years.

"People no longer have to be here," said Ms. Schwartz, whose group runs the "Clean and Safe" downtown street cleaning and patrol program, as well as the "Downtown Baltimore Show" advertising campaign to promote downtown business. "They have to want to be here."

But the small number of major employers gives the business community unique leverage to help fix things, Mr. Bramble said. One key is a bit of peer pressure.

"We have the power to make or break Baltimore. It's that simple," he said. "Each of us, when we leave this room today, should set out to bring one new business to Baltimore, or keep one here. Go to your lawyers if they're not here. Tell them how much you'd prefer that they be down the street."

Mr. Bramble, in an interview later yesterday, said major employers also need to be ready to step up and help pay for -- as well as lobby for public money for -- major facilities downtown.

"I think there's an arena in the future. I think a Broadway theater, in the city someplace, is in the future," he said.

Ms. Schwartz told the people at the breakfast, held at the Center Club in the USF&G building, that the top concerns in surveys so far are panhandling and parking.

"Our employees and visitors feel they're running a gauntlet to go to lunch, a ballgame or the theater," she said. "The reality is that we have homeless and panhandlers on what seems like every corner downtown. We've all talked about it, but it's time to start doing."

The report calls for an array of publicly and privately funded programs to fight back against business flight, a need Ms. Schwartz said is especially compelling because about half of major downtown employers have office leases that come up for renewal within three years.

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