Neighborhoods demand attention from candidates

City residents want renewal to match the Inner Harbor's

August 07, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Vernon Dobson stares through the gray light breaking through his church office window at vacant homes across the street, recalling "The Promise."

The Union Baptist Church pastor remembers former Mayor William Donald Schaefer and developer James Rouse touring Baltimore's African-American churches, asking for support to rebuild the Inner Harbor. The prosperity will spread, the ministers were told. Your neighborhoods will flourish.

Thirty years later, Dobson is still waiting. As the city heads into its final mayoral election of the century, many Baltimore neighborhoods continue to decompose.

Unemployment stands at 9 percent, double the national average. City planners estimate that 1,000 residents a month move out, while open-air drug dealing has become a burgeoning industry.

"The promise has never been fulfilled," says Dobson, a key player in the creation of the Baltimore United In Leadership Development (BUILD) citizens' group 22 years ago. "The next mayor needs to understand that if downtown is going to be a play area for people who don't live in the city, then they need to define what the rest of the city is going to be."

Candidates will be asked to address that concern and others when BUILD holds a mayoral forum at 4 p.m. tomorrow at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd.

There -- and for the remainder of the campaign -- residents, given their increased activism this summer in such groups as BUILD, will be looking for a mayor who responds directly to them. As Schaefer was the "Inner Harbor Mayor" and Kurt L. Schmoke declared himself the "Education Mayor," residents will seek a "Neighborhoods Mayor."

"You'll never build a successful downtown if it's surrounded by poverty-stricken ghettos," said Jimmy Rouse, a downtown business leader and son of the renowned Inner Harbor developer. "I don't think to date that Baltimore has done a good job in finding creative solutions."

Of the 26 mayoral candidates, only City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, City Councilman Martin O'Malley, and former East Baltimore City Councilman Carl F. Stokes have made neighborhood revitalization the focal point of their campaigns.

Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway has said she supports investing in "human capital."

"Let the tourism industry take care of the Inner Harbor hotels," she has said. "We need to focus on people."

`Back to Basics'

Bell began describing himself as the neighborhood mayoral candidate last year.

Bell held the first African-American Economic Summit, a gathering of minority small business leaders concerned about their inability to obtain business loans. He followed up the session with a council hearing on the need for the city to tap into the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a federal statute created in 1977 to ensure that banks provide lending in hard-hit neighborhoods.

In the last six years, cities across America have grabbed $1 trillion of the community reinvestment money, thanks to stricter government enforcement of the law. Prior to 1993, only $42 billion was spent. Currently, the law is under attack in Congress by U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who calls it another means of welfare.

Bell, 37, calls his campaign "Back to Basics, Block By Block" and is calling for the return of the $1 home program. Under the 1970s plan, neighborhoods such as Otterbein were rejuvenated by the city selling homes for $1 to owners willing to renovate them. The homes now sell for up to $200,000.

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson notes that the $1 house program worked in neighborhoods near the Inner Harbor, but doubts it can succeed in harder-hit areas. Yet Bell pledges to increase enforcement of city trash laws and housing codes to shore up those neighborhoods.

"We need to be one Baltimore," Bell said.

Funding the improvements

Bell was the first to call for Baltimore to use CRA funding, but O'Malley has been the candidate running with the idea.

O'Malley recently announced his plan to create a new three-person mayoral office responsible for improving city neighborhoods. The city would use taxes brought in by two new Inner Harbor hotels to create the office and recruit new neighborhood investment, O'Malley said.

The CRA program is working in other cities. Pittsburgh has secured $2.7 billion in CRA funding since 1988. Cleveland has attracted $1.3 billion through nine banks since 1991. In that same time, Baltimore has used $137 million in community reinvestment funds, less than 6 percent of the Pittsburgh funding.

The 36-year-old Northeast city councilman also proposes splitting the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's business recruiting arm, into two offices, creating a neighborhoods division. Baltimore should be as successful in recruiting neighborhood reinvestment money as it has federal housing money, O'Malley said.

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