Second renaissance Faded reputation: Baltimore Hopes to rekindle its reputation as a premier urban tourist destination with new attractions exceeding the scale of the Inner Harbor renovation 15 years ago

December 17, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Baltimore, the city that turned a moribund waterfront into a tourism magnet emulated across the nation, is on the threshold of expanding its menu of attractions at a pace and on a scale unparalleled since Harborplace launched the downtown renaissance 15 years ago.

More than a dozen downtown attractions, costing more than $400 million, are planned, among them the first children's museum designed by Walt Disney Co., a new football stadium and a major harborside entertainment and retail complex.

These attractions and more than $180 million in renovations at existing ones are expected to create hundreds of jobs and rekindle the city's faded reputation as a tourist destination.

"This is a bigger list of coming attractions than we've ever had in the past, and it will raise the city to a new plateau," said Walter Sondheim Jr., who led the organization that oversaw the original Inner Harbor redevelopment.

"There's a popular tendency to treat the city as if its glory is past, and there's plenty of evidence here that nothing could be further from the truth and that the city is moving forward," said Mr. Sondheim.

Beyond the anticipated tangible economic benefits, many business and civic leaders look to the growth of tourism for other reasons.

They see it as an engine to revive downtown neighborhoods and inspire more development. They see it as a magnet to lure large conventions and corporations. They see it as one of the best hopes for renewing confidence in the city and helping reverse decades of middle-class flight.

To Baltimore's leaders, the new renaissance is gratifying, coming on the heels of a recession and several Inner Harbor flops, notably the Power Plant and Market Place.

"It means that our best days are still ahead of us and that there are reasons for us to be hopeful and optimistic about the future," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, moments before lighting the City Hall Christmas tree last week. "And people who think that the renaissance is over are simply mistaken."

These days that sort of optimism abounds at City Hall, in corporate board rooms and in the the offices of hotel general managers and leading retailers.

But it's tempered by the realization that tourist attractions have become more competitive and sophisticated since the days when Baltimore helped redefine urban renaissance.

Baltimore now lags well behind the national average for lengths of stay, at 2.2 nights vs. 3.4 nationally, and average spending per stay, $285 vs. $422 nationally. Competing cities typically spend at least twice as much as Baltimore in marketing their conventions and tourist attractions.

At the same time, other cities have redefined urban entertainment on a grand scale.

Disney is transforming Times Square from a tawdry wasteland to an urban fantasy land. Urban planners have praised Cleveland's revival that includes a new baseball stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chicago has turned its Navy Pier into a popular cultural and entertainment center. Los Angeles developed CityWalk -- a mega retail and entertainment center. And Camden, N.J., revived its waterfront with a $38 million Sony-Blockbuster entertainment complex.

Other waterfronts

Philadelphia, Norfolk, Va., Cincinnati, Jacksonsville, Fla., Miami, Tampa, Fla., New Orleans, and San Francisco, among others, have focused their attention on creating waterfront destinations.

And scores of cities, looking to attract free-spending business travelers, have built convention centers in recent years.

The urban renaissance also seeks to attract tourists with "themed" restaurants, patterned after the Hard Rock Cafe, snazzier clubs and theaters, and the use of high technology to create you-are-there virtual reality fantasy environments.

Only in the past few years, have huge entertainment corporations, such as Sony, Walt Disney, and IWERKS Entertainment, found urban locations to be worthwhile and have invested billions. Joining them have been retailers, such as Nike Town and Virgin Records Megastores, and restaurants such as Planet Hollywood.

Against this backdrop, some suggest, Baltimore faces a challenge laden with irony: Once a front-runner in reviving downtown as a destination, the city must now play catch-up to compete with much of the inner-city development it inspired.

A report in November from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore warns: "While Baltimore led the trend in the first generation, the festival marketplace, it missed out on the next generation of entertainment projects Baltimore is also behind, and could lose out, on the third generation of themed environments which integrate 'fantasy and a sense of place.' "

Laurie B. Schwartz, president of the private, nonprofit partnership, says the warning is not meant to be alarmist but to provide sobering perspective and stress the need for re-establishing the city's role as a forerunner rather than a follower in tourism.

To stay competitive, she suggests, the city must add at least one major attraction -- and several smaller ones -- each year.

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