Mayor's focus is back on downtown Schmoke sees Inner Harbor as key to revitalization

January 23, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

In 1987, newly elected Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke promised to transform Baltimore into "the city that reads," a slogan that stood as a powerful cue that the heady days of focusing on the Inner Harbor would take a back seat to long-neglected neighborhoods.

Ten years later, Schmoke's influence over the direction of city schools has greatly diminished, and he is banking on a glittering downtown to ensure a positive legacy, much like his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, who guided its rebirth in the 1980s.

"We have to work on downtown and neighborhoods, but downtown is key," Schmoke told a group of business leaders yesterday during an annual meeting with the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy organization. "We want to make downtown a cleaner, more prosperous and vibrant place."

To some degree, Schmoke might have been playing to his audience. But his words reflect his changing priorities, seemingly forged by a decade of slow economic growth and declining government investment.

"The mayor seems to be talking a lot more about downtown of late," said Laurie B. Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership. This, she said, delights the city's business leaders.

Schmoke said that he wants to make Baltimore an internationally recognized city that will lure developers and tourists. Last year, the total of tourists visiting the city was 200,000 up on the 7 million visitors in 1996.

To increase the city's drawing power, Schmoke said, the next few years will see:

Two new downtown hotels, totaling 1,600 rooms, to be built by 2002. Yesterday, Peter G. Angelos' 850-room Grand Hyatt hotel won approval from city economic planners to become the city's convention hotel. The 750-room Wyndham Hotel at Inner Harbor East is headed to City Council for final approval.

A parking czar who Schmoke said would ease the city's parking problem downtown. The consultant will map where best to locate new garages that would serve the most people.

The redevelopment of the Power Plant, which is undergoing another rebirth as a retail and restaurant center.

The opening of the Ravens stadium next to Oriole Park to further boost tourism.

Millions of dollars to be spent on downtown's infrastructure.

"I think he is right to focus on downtown," said Clare Miller, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s director of local affairs, who attended the business meeting yesterday. "I've worked downtown for 20 years, and while this is not that wild sense of excitement of the 1970s and 1980s, there is a sense of solidness."

Schmoke outlined other goals for the city.

He said that because of the city's 100,000 college students, he wants to market downtown as a college town and present it as an education center for potential employers.

Also, the mayor said the city would move ahead on its goal of tearing down public housing high-rises and refashioning the sites into neighborhoods that are home not just to the poor.

"We are working very hard to dramatically change public housing from warehouses of poverty into neighborhoods of choice," the mayor said.

Though Schmoke is touting his successes downtown, the city's corporate district is on shaky ground.

This week, USF&G Corp. has agreed to sell out to a Minnesota-based company that puts at risk 2,000 jobs in Baltimore. It recently moved from downtown to Mount Washington.

Since Schmoke became mayor, several companies have moved their headquarters out of Baltimore, including Monumental General Corp., Loyola Capital Corp. and MNC Financial Inc.

Another recent failure has been the Columbus Center, which had been unable to lure enough tourists, putting in jeopardy the center's successful research and development portion. Howard Street has languished for years despite several ambitious plans aimed at revival.

City Life Museums marked another problem for downtown last year. When few visited the museum that showcased Baltimore history, it was forced to close.

Despite the failures and some of the social ills that dog Baltimore, Schmoke said more positive things are happening in the city than not.

"We want people to think about Baltimore in a different way," Schmoke said.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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