Helping to lift the city

June 28, 1999|By Avis Ransom and Arnie Graf

FOR MORE than a generation, Baltimore's civic leaders have pinned their hopes of a revitalized city on downtown redevelopment.

Downtown, like a giant Pac Man, has consumed millions of dollars in public subsidies. The idea is that at some point downtown's prosperity will trickle down into the city's neighborhoods.

It didn't work. As the glittering Inner Harbor filled with fancy shops and restaurants, the city's neighborhoods went into a decline that many experts predict won't be reversed in our lifetimes, if ever.

Now on the horizon, we have more development: some six new hotels are planned for downtown or near downtown, city fathers want a new arena to attract an NBA team, the Hippodrome Theater is getting a multi-million dollar face lift, new office buildings and upscale housing for high-income people are on the drawing board.

Is this all bad? No. Tourists do generate millions in tax dollars. And downtown certainly looks better than it used to.

But the new downtown was supposed to be an economic engine that would generate prosperity for the city's citizens. It was supposed to bring good paying jobs, and help provide money for the city to repair declining neighborhoods.

This was and continues to be the rationale for providing liberal doses of public money into the hands of private developers and entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, downtown has not brought that many good paying jobs for the many poor people who live in the city. Also, it has not helped to increase black wealth in a city that is 60 percent African-American.

This year, during the campaign for mayor and City Council, we will have an opportunity to change the dynamic of downtown development so it truly helps bring a positive return to city neighborhoods and its broader population, not just the upper middle class and the rich.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), which has 2,000 members from from churches, labor unions and community groups, has devised a plan that we are asking mayoral candidates to adopt. The key points in the plan are:

Businesses that receive public money must pay their workers a living wage -- one that lifts a family of four above the poverty line. In Baltimore, that's $7.70 an hour; it will rise to $7.90 next month. And they must set up programs to help workers advance.

For every $1 spent on private development, the city must deposit 50 cents in a neighborhood commercial development fund.

Baltimore's strength has always been derived from its diverse neighborhoods and its hard-working people.

This campaign and the future of the city is about them. Candidates need to explain how downtown development will be made to serve the people who live in the city.

Avis Ransom is co-chairman of BUILD. Arnie Graf is a representative for the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national organization that trains community leaders and works to empower low-and moderate-income people.

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