Boring, but regionalism is important to Maryland

June 08, 1999|By Michael Olesker

ON THE EDITORIAL page of this newspaper the other day there ran a piece so important, and so packed with adult phrases such as "revenue sharing" and "unified approach," that in the entire state of Maryland, with its 5 million inhabitants, it is officially estimated that maybe six people paid any attention whatsoever.

And that estimate may be high.

The subject was regionalism, which is one of the most boring important words of our time. It's a philosophy poignantly embraced over the past three decades by political leaders around here looking for help with their pants pockets turned out, while fat and happy political leaders, imagining they live in some separate universe where rain does not fall, have decided, "Who needs their problems?" and looked the other way.

Casper R. Taylor knows this. He goes to Annapolis every year, as speaker of the House, and everybody says what a brilliant man this is, what a magnificent grip he has on problems of all sorts -- until he starts talking about the troubles in his home of Western Maryland, at which point everyone goes to sleep.

This is why Taylor found himself mentioned on this newspaper's editorial page the other day. You skipped it, right? Taylor was calling -- brace yourself, because here's the phrase that causes people to nod out -- for a "unified approach" to Maryland's economic, political and social problems.

In other words, One Maryland. In other words, the fat counties can't ignore the places such as Western Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore, which are scuffling financially even in the nation's fat economic times.

Those in the city of Baltimore understand this. Over the past three decades, the city's been treated like some political leper colony.

Everyone in suburbia knows the city's problems, which is why so many fled for county life in the first place. Their mistake was imagining that the city's problems would stop at the county line.

Taylor understands the folly of such thinking. At a meeting convened by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association of Baltimore, while pleading the case for state assistance to Allegany County, Taylor also touched on the city's obvious need for help, and nearby counties' indifference based on money, on race, on low-cost housing spreading to the suburbs, and on fear of crime and crumbling schools.

Taylor has at least one philosophical ally in the Baltimore suburbs: Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who grew up in the city when the bottom was beginning to fall out and who sees some of the same problems hitting his county, including aging neighborhoods and schools and pockets of increased crime.

"Obviously," Ruppersberger was saying the other day, "the city has more needs. What people have to understand, though, is how important Baltimore is to the whole state. It's the business hub, which impacts everybody else every day. So there has to be cooperation."

Ruppersberger remembers a meeting 10 years ago that brought together members of the city and Baltimore County councils. He chaired the County Council at the time. The idea was to talk about city-county cooperation.

"The city delegation came out [to Towson] on this bus, and afterwards they headed back to Baltimore," Ruppersberger said. "And they were headed down that big hill on Lake Avenue when the brakes gave out."

The bus made it safely back to City Hall, Ruppersberger said. But for a long time, he found a metaphor in the incident. The city had its brakes shot -- and was certainly losing control of its destiny -- while the prevailing suburban instinct was to keep the brakes on regarding any possibilities of regional cooperation.

"My philosophy," Ruppersberger said, "is that it's in the best interests of the county to work on our common interests. Crime has no geographic boundaries. Economic development and jobs touch us all. We can't continue to act otherwise."

That's Taylor's point, too. This is a small state, and the old jurisdictional lines sometimes get in the way.

"I've gone to Chicago and New York with [Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke], trying to bring business here," Ruppersberger said. "Now Kurt, he's got a great national reputation. They're so impressed meeting him, you can't imagine. And you've got some CEO sitting there, and they're not only impressed meeting him, but impressed that it's a strong, aggressive, regional approach, where we're working together. So it can work both ways."

Geography gets smaller all the time. Those who imagine they can isolate the problems of struggling jurisdictions are looking at life through a rearview mirror, where the past inevitably fades. Cas Taylor's arguments might not be popular, and Dutch Ruppersberger's might be a minority view -- but a regional approach to state problems has to happen.

Even if the mere mention of its name puts people to sleep.

Pub Date: 06/08/99

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