Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's advocacy of drug treatment on demand has caught the attention of a major philanthropist who plans to spend at least $25 million in Baltimore over the next five years to promote economic development and social service programs.
Next month, currency speculator George Soros will establish a branch office of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. The institute, an international charitable foundation whose U.S. headquarters is in New York, is the latest national or international philanthropic organization to set up shop in Baltimore in the past decade.
"Baltimore is a good site. It has a supportive local government," said Soros, 66, whose foundation is the largest donor for needle-exchange programs in the country. "And certainly, the more enlightened attitude of Kurt Schmoke towards the drug problem is an important factor."
For nearly a decade, on television and at national symposiums, Schmoke has called for decriminalization as a way to deal with the drug problem. He has repeatedly advanced the position that the only way to deal with drug addiction is to treat it as a public health problem. His stance has not wavered, despite public support for tougher drug policies.
Schmoke's position struck a chord with Soros, who three years ago established the Lindesmith Center, which conducts research on drug policy at its headquarters in New York and promotes strategies to minimize the damage caused by drug use.
Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire, and Schmoke, the third-term mayor from West Baltimore, met at the philanthropist's home in New York in February to discuss Soros' plans to invest in cities across the country.
"We were able to convince members of the institute's board and staff to come down to Baltimore and meet with front-line professionals from Healthy Start, the Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, St. Ambrose Housing and the Historic East Baltimore Development Corp.," said Lee Tawney, assistant to the mayor.
"After that meeting, Mr. Soros realized it would be better toset up an organization here, rather than to simply send money," said Tawney, who advises the mayor on drug policy issues and international programs.
Schmoke could not be reached for comment.
Gara LaMarche, director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Institute, said the Baltimore office will be the first to focus exclusively on the problems of a single city. Others are national or international in scope.
"The New York office directs its attention to issues of national concern, such as criminal justice and immigration," he said. And the foundation's office in Budapest, Hungary, oversees a
network of organizations that Soros supports in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and other countries such as Haiti and South Africa.
If the Baltimore office is successful, similar programs might be established in other cities across the country, LaMarche said.
"It's a wonderful, unique opportunity to have an international foundation working in partnership with both nonprofit and government agencies," Tawney said. "Not only in terms of the money, but also in terms of the technical expertise they bring."
Through its New York office, the institute is already helping Maryland establish a Manhattan-styled "community court" in Baltimore, with a $60,000 state grant and matching funds from Soros.
The court would seek to reform criminals who commit misdemeanor crimes -- such as prostitution, minor drug offenses and loitering -- through treatment programs and community service. Proponents are hoping the court will be up and running as early as September 1998.
The Soros institute's expansion into Baltimore follows similar moves by other national and international philanthropies.
Baltimore has made a point of making charities feel welcome. City officials and business leaders woo philanthropists with dinners, with help in finding offices and homes, and with the promise of reduced start-up costs.
In the past 10 years, Catholic Relief Services moved here from New York, the Annie E. Casey Foundation from Greenwich, Conn., and the International Youth Foundation from Michigan.
Two other major relief groups -- Lutheran World Relief and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service -- will move here from New York in the next three years. Two other regional Lutheran groups will join them.
"One of the reasons Baltimore is so attractive is that this city has TTC strong neighborhood and nonprofit associations," said Diana Morris, 44, of Lutherville, who was recruited by Soros in May to head the institute's Baltimore office.
"There's a whole infrastructure in Baltimore that you wouldn't necessarily find in another town," she said. "When you have an infrastructure like that, you can really make great progress."
Morris, who began her career as a New York lawyer, has been working for charitable foundations for the past 16 years -- most recently as executive director of the Blaustein philanthropic group, an association of seven family foundations and one corporate giving program.