The Baltimore region and `metropolitics'

Best hope: The interpendence of city and suburbs can be an anchor -- or an engine.

July 05, 1999

THREE YEARS ago, urban scholar David Rusk said Baltimore was moving quickly past the point of no return, past the point at which poverty and failing institutions would make its recovery impossible. Mr. Rusk said the city's hope lay in hard-headed recognition of a mismatch between government's one-jurisdiction responses and the reality of today's living patterns, job locations and housing needs.

But regionalism remains a nonstarter, practically speaking. At a conference recently, the idea was likened to the corpse at a funeral: You expected it to be there, but you didn't expect it to do much.

The question, though, is this: If Baltimore is a corpse, can the five-county region be far behind?

City on the wane?

At the well-attended Evergreen House conference, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution said Baltimore is losing its function in the national economy. Its role as a dumping ground, a place to quarantine the poor, the unskilled and the elderly is about to become official.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial on Monday reported incorrectly that more than 50 percent of Baltimore residents are on welfare. In fact, 56 percent of the state's welfare caseload is in Baltimore. The Sun regrets the error.

"The city can't save itself," Mr. Katz said, observing that even in a period of unprecedented economic growth, it has fallen farther into need. More than 56 percent of its residents are on welfare even at a time when welfare reform is working well almost everywhere.

If there is hope for Baltimore and other U.S. cities in similar straits, Mr. Katz urged, it is in "metropolitics": new leaders who see the interconnections between Towson and Bel Air, Columbia and Owings Mills -- Baltimore and all its healthy satellites.

A further financial attack by the state on poverty, crime, poor schooling and drug abuse in Baltimore advances the idea of Smart Growth idea, he said. Increased potential for city living among so-called empty nesters as well as 20- and 30-year-olds is another sign of hope.

But deepening poverty in city neighborhoods heightens growth pressures in the suburbs: People want to sell their houses and run, taking their kids to the country where roads and schools must be built, open space consumed and congestion created all over again.

Mr. Katz said the suburbs will ignore regional approaches at their peril:

By the year 2020, 64 percent of workers in the Baltimore metropolitan region commute to work, not to or from the city, but to another suburb. Jobs as well as people are moving out.

Transportation systems won't meet the demand. The need for a regional approach to new bus routes and the like is obvious.

Not every town in the Baltimore region will be able to land as many "big box" retailers as it needs to generate economic activity and tax revenue. If the region had one economic development agency, its competitive position vs. Philadelphia or other cities would probably improve and each subdivision could save money on staff -- and share the tax revenue.

Not enough affordable housing exists in the counties -- exacerbating what the planners now call a "spatial mismatch" between workers and jobs.

There is also a skills mismatch: 75 percent of jobs will demand at least a high school education; 40 percent college. Not enough entry-level jobs are available for those who need them, and the number in need will increase as welfare reform proceeds.

A regional approach to job skill development, employment readiness and the like -- led by private industry with government assistance -- will be needed.

Support in Balto. Co.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has been saying he supports regional cooperation. And he attended part of the Evergreen House conference. Perhaps he and his fellow county executives should convene a summit to discuss new governmental structures, to explore the constitutional steps needed to form these structures and to provide more demonstrations of how life in the region would be improved.

Regionalism has to be more than bulk purchasing of paper clips and fertilizer. Giant steps are needed.

The findings of Mr. Rusk and Mr. Katz are more than cries of wolf.

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