Hobby groups could boost city's economy

Money machines: From marathon to craft shows, special-interest events bring in crowds, profits.

April 08, 2001

IN DECIDING to play host once again to a marathon -- set for Oct. 20 -- Baltimore enters a crowded field.

Running's popularity is so immense that 28 long-distance races will be held in the United States just in April. They range from the well-known Boston and Golden Gate marathons to a 26.2-mile fund-raising run along the New Jersey shoreline sponsored by a community hospital.

Coincidentally, 28 other marathons are scheduled in the rest of the world this month. If you want to run on the banks of the Dead Sea, fly to Jordan. South Africa sponsors a long-distance race between Cape Town's two extremes -- the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

And if these events are not exotic enough for you, there is always communist North Korea, which is sponsoring its first marathon race April 15.

In the 105 years that have elapsed since the modern-day marathon was introduced as part of the first revival of the Olympic Games in Athens, running has emerged as a huge leisure-time activity.

Long-distance races also have turned into a gigantic business; all major events have corporate tie-ins. That's one of the reasons the number of marathons continues to soar.

To a cash-strapped city like Baltimore, these sponsorships are a godsend. Private backing makes the Oct. 20 Baltimore Marathon possible and turns it into a two-day festival that will include a rock concert and a health and fitness expo.

These kinds of crowd activities are desperately needed to bring more people and excitement to Baltimore.

In the 1970s, the City Fair and outdoor ethnic festivals were an important ingredient in efforts to create public pride and counter the population exodus out of Baltimore. Although some nationalities still sponsor local festivals, much of the volunteer enthusiasm seems to have evaporated.

Other untapped niches exist for Baltimore, however. Chief among them is the multi-billion-dollar hobby market.

For the past 25 years, thousands of people from the region have trekked to Baltimore each year for the American Craft Council Show. Like the annual Artscape summer festival, it is an event where contacts are made, ideas swapped and trends spotted.

Using these two shows as a foundation, the city should make a determined effort to bring more crafts-related events and businesses here.

A visit to Baltimore Clayworks in Mount Washington, to Seminole Sampler in Catonsville, or a baubles emporium like Beadazzled in Mount Vernon ought to convince even a skeptic that the interest -- and money -- are here to better exploit this potential.

Just one idea: How about a regular weekend sidewalk sale in Patterson Park, where local painters and photographers could showcase their creativity?

Then there is the huge and varied collectibles field. Despite the tremendous potential of this niche, Baltimore has not had a good collectibles flea market since a Catonsville drive-in movie location went out of business more than a decade ago.

Running a flea market is not brain surgery. But as the short-lived experiments at Memorial Stadium and Eastern High School proved, Baltimore's city government is incapable of doing the job right. A motivated private landlord, relying on a skilled operator, is needed. Other prerequisites are a convenient location and a consistent weekend schedule.

Our nominee for a flea market location is Reisterstown Road Plaza, near the city-county line. It has plenty of unused parking-lot space. And the flea market would not compete with existing tenants so long as it is limited to collectibles.

The collectibles field offers other opportunities for economic development as well.

Railroad collectibles and miniature trains are a thriving business. The B&O Railroad Museum and the Streetcar Museum should nurture such hobby groups and their gatherings. The Baltimore Museum of Industry is another resource that would benefit from hobby events.

Three decades ago, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer recognized the importance of festivals to Baltimore. It is time for Mayor Martin O'Malley to exploit that same strategy. His city government ought to be realistic about its role, though. It should not be the lead sponsor, only a proactive facilitator.

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