New energy in mayor's office brightens a dulled Baltimore

July 30, 2000|By Michael Olesker

IN ABOUT TWO more minutes, Mayor Martin O'Malley will obliterate all memory of the previous 12 years of sleep-walking at City Hall. Last week, he helped keep Sylvan Learning Systems from bolting town with all those jobs. Last week, he declared a rescue mission for poor Belvedere Square. In the last decade, the last administration would have watched these developments and put up signs declaring: "Will the last person leaving the city of Baltimore please turn off the lights."

A city must turn a psychological corner before anything else can happen. In his quirky wisdom, William Donald Schaefer understood this 30 years ago, with his silly hats and his insistence that "Baltimore is best." Clarence Du Burns understood it, too, in his brief time at the helm. And then Kurt L. Schmoke, for all his good intentions, let it get away.

The energy is back, as is the understanding that businesses must succeed in order for people in neighborhoods to have meaningful jobs. Sylvan Learning Systems was ready to do what so many other important firms have done in the last decade: leave town. No matter that its young president, Doug Becker, is a local guy and wants Baltimore to swing again. He has a business to run, and a future to embrace.

This mayor, O'Malley, understands that financial compromises have to be made. If we can throw sweetheart deals at the likes of the Baltimore Ravens, who take their millions and treat ticket-holders and local high school football teams with sheer contempt, surely we can look out for a company like Sylvan - which has increased from 200 employees to 5,000 in the last four years, which expects to create up to 2,000 jobs in the next five years (most of them paying $50,000 or more), and whose work connects the entire Baltimore area to a vibrant future.

With city and state economic officials flanking him, Doug Becker last week announced he would keep Sylvan Ventures where it is, at Fleet Street and Central Avenue, next to its parent, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. Sylvan Ventures is the $500 million Internet education incubator.

Internet.

Education.

We are talking about the future, which has begun to look incrementally brighter with the new drive at City Hall. This mayor took over promising a cut in the city's dreadful crime. But he understands this cannot be a single note. The last mayor put up walls against the business community. This mayor looks at a place such as Belvedere Square, decaying in front of everyone's eyes for the last five years, and says this has gone far enough.

It is one of the huge disappointments for North Baltimore. Once a cluster of smart shops and markets across York Road from the venerable Senator Theatre, the market's manager, James Ward, was bankrolled by a $1.7 million government loan. Belvedere Square was then left to become a ghost town in recent years.

Last week, O'Malley sat down with the remaining tenants and lighted a candle in the dark. He said he would draft an ordinance allowing the city to condemn Belvedere Square, buy it and begin bringing it back to life.

"You gotta understand," said Greg Novik, the owner of Greg's Bagels, one of the few remaining businesses left in a sea of darkened storefronts. "He said to us, `We are going to do something about Belvedere Square.' He didn't say, `We're going to try.' He said, `We are going to.'"

This was Monday night, at a meeting at which the mayor was going to have food brought in.

"Are you kidding?" Novik told him. "I'll bring my bagels."

They are, in a crowded field, a legend in all of bageldom. At lunchtime last Friday, Greg's Bagels was packed. But it was an odd, unpredictable moment.

"We've been here almost 12 years," Novik was saying. "There was a time when we actually made money. Now, the only people who come in are our regular customers. Nobody else. Everybody else drives past and thinks the whole place is closed. Our regulars come in and tell us, `Please don't leave. Don't do what everybody else did.' Well, I'm not leaving. This place is ours, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna leave. But, to be honest, I'm getting tired of running a not-for-profit organization."

He is not alone. There are businesses that have felt neglected, or intimidated by crime or put off by the city's annoying downtown parking or high taxes. Some have folded, and others have fled. Some hold on.

The last time Parris Glendening ran for governor, he stopped in at Greg's Bagels for a little politicking and a little lunch. Novik handed him a deluxe bagel with cream cheese.

"I don't know whether to charge you and make the money now," he laughed, "or give it to you for free and call in a political favor later."

It was a small, good-natured joke. For a decade, the city's business troubles have been a large and unfunny joke. Last week, it was nice to see the energy out of City Hall. All those entering the city of Baltimore can begin to turn on a few lights.

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