Champion of city living

Progress: Live Baltimore has been getting homebuyers into lesser-known parts of the city, and now it is going independent.

September 09, 2001|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two days before hundreds of people would turn up for the June homebuying trolley tour of little-known Baltimore neighborhoods, Tracy Gosson had a problem.

She was the event's organizer, and she couldn't find enough homes that were for sale.

By the time she could pinpoint a suitable candidate for the west- side neighborhood tour, the house would already have a contract on it and be off the market.

This was a problem that was both inspiring and, as Gosson put it, "insane."

At one point, Gosson sat mock sobbing in front of a picture-perfect townhouse off Cold Spring Lane that had just gone under contract in days, and Pam Ruff, her consultant and comedic straight woman, consoled her, "Let it go, Tracy. Let it go. It's gone."

After three years as executive director of the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, Gosson has only herself to blame for her success. In those three years, during which this city has gone from a "why-would-you-live-in-the-city?" attitude to a hotbed of home sales, Live Baltimore has made itself essential.

A nonprofit organization formed to champion city living, Live Baltimore has long since left the cheerleading squad and joined the players. At its birth, it was a small office of one employee - Gosson - with a budget of $125,000.

Today, Live Baltimore has grown to four full-time employees, four consultants and a $625,000 budget. And now it's time for Live Baltimore to break off on its own.

The rise of Live Baltimore in the city's real estate market was no accident, no riding the prevailing housing boom for this little nonprofit.

Rather, the small office on Saratoga Street was thrust into a leading role by the willpower of Tracy Gosson. The woman who felt comfortable enough to rent a jackhammer to dig a trench in front of her house wields a bullhorn before a crowded trolley tour with equal aplomb.

"There's truly a passion in what she does; she has affection for the city," said David Elam, the regional vice president for housing and community development at the Fannie Mae Corp. who previously served as the director of Baltimore's Partnership Office.

Elam's Baltimore successor, Frank Coakley, also has worked with Gosson.

"I use the word dynamo," Coakley said. "She doesn't have an off switch."

12-hour days

For Gosson, 34, her work, where 12-hour days are routine, derives from her own discovery of Baltimore six years ago as a first-time homebuyer.

Her experience restoring a home in Butcher's Hill, conquering daunting do-it-yourself tasks and bonding with neighbors facing the same challenge, formed her conviction that many people are missing out on the good life.

Underneath Baltimore's tarnished image of decaying buildings and overwhelmed infrastructure was an adventure.

"If all you do is read the paper and follow the news you would think that this town is going down the drain fast." Gosson said. "But when you really look and drive through the city and see how many good neighborhoods there are and how many people care about their neighborhoods, it's impossible to not feel positive about the future."

The problem is that most prospective homebuyers don't just go blindly through the city hunting for houses, especially in a city they don't know. Normally they'll follow the well-heeled path to neighborhoods with rising home prices and pay for the safety of consensual homebuying. Even worse, in provincial Baltimore, some locals tend to stick to their own neighborhoods, ignoring large unexplored territory.

Ruff, an economic consultant, admits thinking that she knew Baltimore until she went on one of Gosson's fact-finding tours of places that she hadn't known existed.

"Driving around the streets with Tracy literally has gone from `Oh my God, where are you taking me,' to `Wow, Tracy, I never had any idea,'" Ruff said.

Before Live Baltimore, it was mostly trendy neighborhoods - Mount Washington, Roland Park, Guilford, Federal Hill - spilling over to the next neighborhood. For the last three years, Live Baltimore has been taking control of this overflow and trickle-down market by ushering traffic into lesser-known neighborhoods that have been left to fend for themselves.

After three years, Live Baltimore has become an established conduit for real estate commerce. For instance:

The "Buying Into Baltimore" trolley tours - one of the neighborhoods in East Baltimore is scheduled for Saturday - draw hundreds of potential homebuyers, shopping to take advantage of $3,000 in grants that go toward closing costs.

Live Baltimore's Web site, www.LiveBaltimore.com, features profiles of more than 100 city neighborhoods along with local contacts and news on financing packages, buying incentives and grants.

Live Baltimore mustered a cold-calling campaign to turn the Live Where You Work program, which gives employees $3,000 toward closing costs, into a hot ticket item with 60 firms participating from the Johns Hopkins Health Systems to Morgan State University to Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse.

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