Long shot in Las Vegas

May 17, 2002

WITH MAYOR Martin O'Malley leading the delegation, Baltimore hopes to hit the jackpot next week when North America's biggest retailers gather for their spring convention in Las Vegas. Talk about long odds.

The push is not cheap, costing more than $80,000 in booth space and exhibit expenses alone. But that's not the issue; most of that money comes from private sponsors. The real question is whether the city - as just one of roughly 600 exhibitors - has a clear enough sales message to deliver to the International Council of Shopping Centers convention.

The city's own 24-page advertising insert to Shopping Center World, a trade paper, suggests it does not. Mayor O'Malley, according to the supplement, "plans to show retailers a menu of options" - a hodgepodge of development opportunities ranging from the Inner Harbor East to the west side to such retail wastelands as Pennsylvania Avenue, Old Town Mall and Pimlico.

This underscores the problem: Over the past several decades, Baltimore has never put together a coherent retail strategy. There are no detailed plans for a retail hub; there has been no critical look at the value of one site over another for retail use. The best city officials can do is point to all the unmet needs throughout the underserved city, as Mayor O'Malley will be doing in Las Vegas.

"A company wants to know: Are you offering the Inner Harbor, Fells Point or Howard Street? Who are the next-door tenants going to be? Who is the developer?" says a successful retail promoter.

The landmark Stewart's building at Howard and Lexington streets exemplifies the lack of specific blueprints.

It's a cornerstone of the city's ambitious west-side redevelopment plan, and will be ready for Oct. 1 occupancy after a $22 million renovation is completed. Plenty of retailers and office users have shown an interest, but not a single lease has been signed yet. One reason: The city has not decided what will happen to the underused "superblock" next door. Nor is there any timetable for those crucial decisions. Moreover, street reconstruction will make getting to and from that area a nightmare over the next year.

As a result of all these uncertainties, the building's owner decided against trying to market it in Las Vegas.

This is not to say that Baltimore's unprecedented sales pitch at the shopping center convention is futile, or doomed to fail. It's a start - and that matters in a city that doesn't have a single department store within its borders.

But a more logical starting point would have been a focused strategy that would give interested retailers the specific information and guarantees they need to make multimillion-dollar investment decisions. That would have made the city's pitch in Vegas less of a gamble - and more of a sure winner.

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