Promoting the life of the city Campaigner: For 15 years, Laurie Schwartz has worked tirelessly for the revitalization of Baltimore.

Catching Up With...

March 30, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Laurie Schwartz stands on terra firma in Louie's Bookstore Cafe, one of the few unchanging pieces of Charles Street during her reign as president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"This is what makes me love what I do," Schwartz says, as she hugs Louie's longtime owner, Jimmy Rouse.

During a short stroll down her favorite Baltimore street, Schwartz can recount the history of every storefront, the story behind every success and failure. For 15 years, she has been a tireless promoter of this street and this city. And she knows her work is not just about filling storefronts.

"I don't look at Charles Street as much as a collection of buildings as I think about the people," Schwartz says.

If a merchant decides to leave Charles Street, Schwartz is devastated. When Ginny Tomlinson, owner of the Tomlinson Craft Collection, closed her shop next to Louie's and headed to Towson, "I felt deserted," Schwartz says.

When a business is forced to close, as the boutique Femme did in 1996, Schwartz takes partial blame. "I almost felt responsible, because I was not able to attract enough [compatible] other stores around Femme," she says.

At times, Downtown Partnership's determinedly cheerful "See Ya 'Round Downtown!" campaign, the free concerts, festivals and First Thursdays on Charles Street seem futile in the face of vacant storefronts and the steady defection of employers and residents to the suburbs.

Just last week, there was more depressing news from the U.S. Census Bureau: Since 1990 the city has lost another 60,000 residents, a hemorrhage that no one knows how to stanch.

Taking it personally

Although she publicly holds her emotions in check, Schwartz takes every setback personally. "It does hurt and it did hurt," she says in her glistening office on Charles Street. At times, she acknowledges, "I've wondered whether it was worth fighting the good fight."

But tenacious champion of city life that she is, Schwartz always hangs in there. She finds hope in the opening of the new Convention Center, the new football stadium rising next to Camden Yards, the decision of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. to move its headquarters from Columbia to Inner Harbor East.

Everything, she says, goes in cycles. "If you get old enough in a job, [you're able to] experience a new cycle."

Schwartz, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., arrived in Baltimore in 1973 to attend graduate school in community planning at the University of Maryland. It was a time of great promise for the city. Older neighborhoods were being revitalized and the National Aquarium and Harborplace were glittering visions on the city's horizon.

Schwartz, who lives in Roland Park with her husband, Al Copp, became caught up in the city's renaissance. When then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer asked her to manage the revitalization of Charles Street in 1982, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

Eight years later, Charles Street Management Corp. became the Downtown Partnership, and Schwartz found herself in charge of a 200-square-block area bordered by Key Highway, the Jones Falls Expressway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Avenue. Her mission: help make downtown Baltimore a vibrant, attractive place to live, work and play.

It was the Downtown Partnership, a private, nonprofit organization, that pushed for a special downtown tax district to pay for extra security and sanitation services. The district has been so successful that downtown property owners voted to renew it for another five years.

Of "1,200 property owners and 500 businesses, not one stood up to say, 'I didn't think my money was well spent,' " Schwartz says proudly.

Bicentennial plans

Now, for the city's bicentennial year, she and the partnership are gearing up for a downtown beautification project that will include Colonial banners, flower boxes, new trees, pedestrian directional signs and decorative street furniture.

And the organization has shifted its emphasis from filling older office space with businesses to retooling such spaces for residential use by an emerging demographic: college-age kids.

Schwartz is counting on baby boomers' babies to replenish Baltimore's warrens of otherwise empty office buildings. Upscale 20-somethings are also likely patrons of the trendy, one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants she envisions along Charles Street. The successful synergy between Louie's Bookstore Cafe and Nouveau -- a design store that has recently tripled in size -- exemplifies how Charles Street could thrive with a carefully engineered retail mix of hip, Gen X-oriented businesses like Urban Outfitters with a distinctive Baltimore flavor, Schwartz says.

Schwartz never tires of talking up the city. Good buzz, she knows, pays off.

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