Baltimore's Digital Harbor may be starting to compute

Urban Chronicle

Vision: The creation of a high-tech hub downtown is beginning to involve actions, not just lofty words.

May 17, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A QUARTER-CENTURY or so ago - before Harborplace and the National Aquarium - many scoffed at the idea of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer that the Inner Harbor could be a tourist destination.

Today, it's not hard to find those who are similarly skeptical of Mayor Martin O'Malley's vision of a Digital Harbor - Baltimore as a high-tech center.

As if to lend credence to the doubters, Governing magazine - which last month boosted O'Malley's national profile by putting him and Buffalo's mayor on its cover under the words "Young and Impatient" - devotes its cover this month to cities' pursuit of technology firms. The headline reads "Little Chips, Big Dreams: The Elusive Search for High-Tech Glory."

But as Baltimore ratchets up its efforts to attract technology companies, it is receiving encouraging words from a recent federally commissioned study and from the author of a book on technology and cities.

Although cautioning "there are only so many jobs to go around," Thomas A. Horan, author of "Digital Places: Building Our City of Bits," said in a telephone interview and, appropriately, e-mail follow-up last week that the research presence of the Johns Hopkins medical complex and the city's proximity to the Washington suburbs bode well for the city's long-range prospects.

"In general, the Digital Harbor seems to have many of the ingredients" for success, said Horan, executive director of the Claremont (Calif.) Information and Technology Institute and associate professor in the School of Information Science at the Claremont Graduate University.

The hopeful outside assessments are being made as the Digital Harbor finally seems to involve as much action as talk.

Last week, the city approved a contract for the installation of several miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable beneath city streets. That follows the approval last month by the General Assembly of $18 million for improvements along the city's waterfront promenade, where officials hope many new high-tech companies will locate.

"Reconstructing our infrastructure is a critical part of making Baltimore technology-ready," said Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for economic development.

By July, Schwartz said, the city will unveil a comprehensive technology strategy "focused on how Baltimore can position itself as an extremely attractive location for technology-based companies."

On May 24, city officials will help celebrate the expansion of Barcoding.com, a 3 1/2 -year-old home-grown company.

And this month, the Downtown Partnership launched a major promotion push with a 14-page advertising supplement called "Digital Downtown Baltimore" in the regional editions of several leading business magazines.

"Downtown Partnership has identified approximately 85 `tech' companies that have opened their doors right in the heart of downtown Baltimore," said the supplement. "Most did not exist before the mid-1990s."

The potential to increase that number is there, if you believe a report this year by the California-based Milken Institute.

Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and titled "Knowledge Value Cities in the Digital Age," the study doesn't list Baltimore as among the "first-tier" or even "emerging technology" cities. But it does list Baltimore as one of a handful of "comeback cities," erstwhile "basket cases" of economic activity that demonstrate "the potential for urban centers in the information age."

"Baltimore represents one of the last great opportunities along the East Coast to tap into the kind of urban resurgence seen in places like Boston and New York, at affordable prices," the report said.

Horan, whose book is published by the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, says Baltimore's cost-of-living is just one of several potential advantages.

With Hopkins, the city can draw companies involved not just in biotechnology but in bioinformatics, which combines biology and genomics.

"Being in metro Washington is a plus," said Horan. He likens Baltimore to Lowell, Mass., whose high-tech rebirth he highlights in his book. "Boston's economy was very important to Lowell," he said.

In his book, Horan notes that while urban areas are appealing to start-ups, larger companies prefer campuslike settings, although in metropolitan areas. "Part of my point about suburban locations is it doesn't have to be that way," he said. "I don't think Amazon.com regrets being in Seattle. The young employees really like the downtown Seattle location. ... "

"The more Baltimore can do to enhance itself, the better," Horan added. "Being attractive to talent is part of the requirement of being attractive to employers of talent."

In the end, the most salient magazine piece for Baltimore might not be this month's Governing but an article in a recent issue of Newsweek that highlighted "10 New Tech Cities" - many of which don't qualify for most lists as cutting edge, but each of which managed to leverage its strengths.

Omaha, Neb.? Tulsa, Okla.? Akron, Ohio? If they can do it, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that Baltimore can, too.

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