Downtown economy: A measure of profit Tiny slice of city holds 100,000 jobs, quarter of city's total

November 15, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

It was a big deal for downtown Baltimore when brokerage Legg Mason decided a few weeks ago to keep 1,000 workers in the district. Just how big is made clear by a detailed new study, the first full-color portrait in memory of downtown's economy.

Because the downtown is a piece of a larger city, statistics for downtown are blurry or incomplete in the usual economic reports. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a public-private agency that promotes the district, tried to remedy that with a study released yesterday.

"There was no good data," said Laurie Schwartz, the partnership's president. "This is the first time we've been able to put together data and information just on downtown."

The report says an 80th of the city's land has a quarter of its jobs: 100,000. The study loosely defined downtown as bounded by Camden Yards on the south, the University of Maryland Medical Center on the west, the Jones Falls Expressway on the east and Fayette Street on the north.

It shows a district heavily dependent on government employers and big companies. Forty percent of downtown employees work for either the city, state or federal governments.

Almost half of the private-sector workers get their paychecks from 14 companies. And six unidentified downtown employers paid $2.58 million in city real estate taxes last year -- almost equal to the budget of the city's entire planning department.

Hence the relief last month when Legg Mason decided to combine its downtown operations to the 35-story USF&G Tower rather than move some or all its operations from the city.

The report shows an economic engine driven mostly by people who live in the suburbs but by many city residents, too. A survey by the partnership of seven major downtown employers showed that 37 percent of their workers returned at night to city houses and apartments.

When downtown jobs disappear, "the cynics say, 'What difference does it make? They're all commuters from the suburbs anyway,' " said David Gillece, a vice president at Colliers Pinkard, a Baltimore-based commercial real estate services firm. "This shows that isn't true."

Other nuggets from the study, unveiled at a breakfast meeting of downtown business leaders yesterday:

* Even with recent big declines in value, downtown office buildings still generate 42 percent of the city's commercial real-estate tax revenue.

* Universities, hospitals and other health or education groups employ nearly one in seven downtown workers. But the partnership found that such nonprofit institutions -- along with government offices -- own 28 percent of downtown real estate -- and pay no property taxes.

* Small and mid-sized companies make up the majority of downtown's business population. More than three-quarters of downtown businesses employ fewer than 100.

Surveyors also polled more than 70 business executives on what they like or don't like about downtown. The biggest peeve was parking, outscoring crime, grime and politics. Crime came second.

On an average weekday, 95 percent of the parking places in downtown's core are occupied, the study said, and each space costs an average of $142 per month.

Downtown's biggest advantages, the survey said, were closeness to colleagues, vendors and customers, and easy access.

City leaders used the study to pat themselves on the back yesterday -- a bit -- but also as a call to action. Downtown has been hurt by business defections and downsizings in recent years, such as insurer USF&G Corp.'s decision last year to move its headquarters to a campus partially in northern Baltimore and partially in Baltimore County.

And it's still hurt by empty offices -- a 21 percent vacancy rate at midyear, according to a study by Colliers Pinkard.

"I think we all feel more comfortable about downtown Baltimore today than we did a year ago," said Harold Adams, chairman of architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc. and also the downtown partnership's chairman.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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