On a sun-drenched day in June, Larry Gibson stood by the harbor's edge in front of a blue-and-gold banner that read "Baltimore 200 -- America's City of Firsts" and promised a yearlong bicentennial celebration that would outshine any other.
Gibson, the longtime political strategist tapped by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as co-chairman of the nonprofit corporation planning the celebration, gazed into the TV cameras and exclaimed:
"Two hundred days from today, we begin the biggest, baddest, most bodacious birthday bash that any city has ever had."
For his part, Schmoke touted the bicentennial as an "international event," while the city's economic development chief looked hopefully to 1997 as the equivalent of the "Olympics of Baltimore."
But as Baltimore begins its bicentennial year, the boasts ring hollow, say business leaders, hoteliers, heads of tourist attractions and restaurateurs.
They say plans fall well short of the potential to attract a national spotlight and untold visitors during the anniversary of Baltimore's 1797 incorporation. (The city celebrated the bicentennial of its 1729 founding in 1929.)
Today, more than 18 months after planning began, Schmoke and Gibson still say the year will be filled with just the sort of celebrations they had hoped for, a series of events chronicling the city's rich history and capitalizing on annual events and existing attractions.
But critics say the effort has been beset by a shortage of cash, mixed signals from City Hall and corporate reluctance to contribute to what many view as a poorly organized, ill-focused effort.
And the horizon of possibilities has receded considerably.
For the yearlong celebration, Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration Inc. said it has managed to raise just $700,000, including seed money from the city.
The biggest corporate sponsor, Green's Ice Cream, is based in Pennsylvania.
Substantial donations from local companies have proved elusive.
But some -- including the law firm Piper & Marbury, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Black & Decker Corp., Ryland Homes, the Baltimore Sun Co., Baltimore Magazine and Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. -- have contributed cash or services.
Secrecy surrounds the nonprofit bicentennial corporation's efforts: Its leaders refused to reveal how much city money has been spent, how much most projects and events cost, how money raised is being spent and how future contributions would spent.
Major projects such as a new Welcome Center on a planned Inner Harbor "Bicentennial Plaza" and a 7.5-mile waterfront promenade now appear unlikely to be completed in 1997.
The opening of a keystone of the celebration -- a new attraction at Baltimore City Life Museums enabling visitors to trace records of immigrants and 19th-century free blacks on computers -- has been pushed back six months, until December of the bicentennial year.
Change of direction
Hopes for high-profile events to attract the national spotlight and hordes of visitors have evaporated, replaced by a series of mostly low-key, low-budget affairs.
Example: Instead of a re-enactment of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, there's now a ceremonial daily flag-raising at the historic fort.
"It's not going to be a celebration. It's going to be more like a dud if we don't get behind it," said Robert L. Steele III, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Inner Harbor and chairman of a Greater Baltimore Committee tourism and hospitality group with more than 100 members.
"If we light a fire, it's a big national story."
Schmoke said he's happy with the progress thus far and wants a series of events throughout the year instead of one or two major ones.
He called the Green's donation "a first step," adding: "There'll be many, many more."
Those whose livelihoods depend on luring visitors downtown see it differently. They're thoroughly underwhelmed.
Today, they look longingly -- and with more than a little envy -- to Cleveland, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding last year with a series of big-bang events and projects that make Baltimore's plans pale by comparison.
Cleveland, with Mayor Michael R. White leading a very public cheerleading campaign and aggressively courting corporate support for nearly four years, parlayed its bicentennial into an unprecedented publicity and economic development bonanza.
Celebrations and projects directly related to the bicentennial cost more than $11 million, the bulk of it from private contributions, organizers said.
Among the highlights:
Walt Disney's creative geniuses kicked off the year, producing a seven-hour, $700,000 New Year's Eve show the likes of which Cleveland had never seen. It featured fireworks, a high-tech light show projecting images of the city on a skyscraper and the world's largest birthday greeting card.
The event drew about 100,000 people and, perhaps more important, the sort of publicity every city dreams of from the likes of CNN, USA Today and the New York Times.