County vote to stiff city is punitive, shortsighted

May 25, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS EVERYBODY knows, talk is cheap. But who knew the Baltimore County Council, asked to toss a few bucks into the effort to rebuild the west side of the city's downtown, would turn out to be not only cheap but shortsighted and punitive and petty?

You heard about this, right? The other day, the County Council voted to send a piddly $250,000 this year -- instead of a nearly-as-piddly $500,000 -- to help renovate the historic Hippodrome Theatre, an effort designed to turn the long-deserted movie palace into a home for live theater, of the manner now performed at The Mechanic.

It will cost an estimated $56 million to do this. It's a lot of money, but it's also a statement: The city believes in its own downtown, believes it can be a mecca for people from all over the metro area, and believes that, after years of neglecting it, we can transform downtown's west side from a zone of shabbiness and anxiety to a center of pride and maybe even culture.

And, of the $56 million cost, Baltimore County has now said no to an additional $250,000 -- which, for the non-math majors out there, is less than half of 1 percent of the Hippodrome project cost.

Thanks, Baltimore County Council.

Thanks, on behalf of the city of Baltimore.

Thanks, on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore County, who are estimated to account for about 60 percent -- Sixty percent! Are you listening, council members? -- of the audiences currently attending downtown's Mechanic Theatre.

And thanks, on behalf of all those who speak the values of regionalism and do not find ways to stick it to the city when they think they can get away with it.

Do we need a history lesson here?

The city thought it had a thumbs-up from Baltimore County for $500,000 this year to help renovate the Hippodrome. The theater has much show biz history behind it -- half a century ago, some of the top performers in the country appeared there for live stage shows -- but it also has huge promise as a centerpiece in the rebuilding of downtown's west side.

Donald Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who heads the Greater Baltimore Committee and knows the importance of regional cooperation, thought he'd gotten a commitment for county funding.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, another strong proponent of city-county cooperation, worked quietly behind the scenes for a $1 million commitment over two years.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who originally asked for $1 million from the county, got wind of some last-minute council reluctance and decided to get a few things off his chest.

If the county didn't OK the half-million, said Rawlings, "I will have no qualms in seeking to delay or disapprove projects of mutual benefit to Baltimore City and Baltimore County."

Rawlings can say such things. He can say them because he is chairman of the House appropriations committee, which controls lots of state money. And he can say them because, from this position, he has previously helped fund many county projects.

And he can also say such things because he is right: There must be cooperation, including financial, between the city and its suburbs. We cannot continue to draw lines, to stigmatize, to imagine that something that is big and embracing for one community is not valuable to those in nearby communities.

But maybe Rawlings said it in the wrong way -- or maybe the sensitive souls on the County Council chose to take it the wrong way, as though they are political novices.

Joseph Bartenfelder, chairman of the County Council, certainly sounded that way Monday, when he said, "The independence of the council needs to remain that way -- independent."

And the council voted against the $500,000, choosing instead to go for the piddly $250,000.

Out of $56 million.

For a live theater, 60 percent of whose patrons will likely be suburbanites.

Can we make something clear here? Whether the council did this out of a thumb-in-your-eye response to Rawlings, or an effort to hold the line on the county's $1.79 billion spending plan for the year, its decision is one which will live in the annals of political pettiness and myopia.

More than a snub of Rawlings, it's an affront to county citizens who enjoy live theater. What's their alternative? To build their own theater? Imagine what that would cost: a lot more than $500,000 and, starting from scratch, probably a lot more than $56 million.

The city's response to all this should be simple: Any time Baltimore County residents want to attend the theater at the new Hippodrome, they should be charged more than city residents.

Either that, or make the cheap and petty County Council members pick up the tab when the building turns out to be irresistible.

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