Drawn to Baltimore living

Moving north: Washingtonians are responding to ads heralding the city's home values.

October 14, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When Michael C. Murphy pulled up an Internet news story about an ad campaign pitching Baltimore homes to Washingtonians, he realized those ads were speaking to him.

"Almost immediately I got a Baltimore agent and starting looking in Butchers Hill," said Murphy, a 29-year-old attorney for the Teamsters union who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Northwest Washington. "I realized other people were going to hear what was going on in Baltimore. I didn't want all the cool houses to be taken."

No more disappointing house-hunting treks to Rockville for Murphy and his wife, Angela. They quickly mobilized to scout out Baltimore neighborhoods. This month, they will close on and move into their seven-bedroom Victorian brownstone in Reservoir Hill with original oak wood floors, carved mantels and stained-glass windows.

"We weren't really thinking about Baltimore," said Angela Murphy, 32, a legislative counsel to the Association of American Publishers. "I think the article really lit the fire under Michael."

The article Murphy read was the result of a $55,000 advertising and public relations campaign that Baltimore-based Gilden Integrated created for Live Baltimore Home Center, which promotes Baltimore living.

Small by industry standards, the campaign has sparked national attention, landing Live Baltimore in articles in the business and real estate pages of The New York Times on consecutive days recently, and in USA Today.

"I think there's an interest nationally, because we're getting upper-middle-class people to move back into an inner city that many people had given up for dead," said Jack Gilden, president of Gilden Integrated. "These are high-powered people who live right in the middle of Washington or the suburbs. They're moving from places that were considered hotter places to live. Some of these people made six figures and were living in a condo."

The marketing effort initially focused on encouraging home buying along a two-mile corridor from Centre Street to 33rd Street, including Penn Station - one of three stations with commuter rail service to Washington - and has since expanded to other neighborhoods.

The ads, which will continue through next month, started running in the Washington City Paper, the Washington Blade and the Intowner in April. They popped up at 11 Metro stops, including Dupont Circle, about the same time.

The public relations campaign kicked in with news releases announcing the ads and "happy hours" staged to catch commuters at Penn Station in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington.

"The buzz was created not by relying on any one thing, but by employing the entire arsenal and hitting people with a real need for affordable housing where they lived," said Gilden, whose firm is known for its work in the high-technology sector.

The ads include lines such as: "Happiness is measured in square feet," "Completely stripped and ready to have your way with it," "House Rich, Cash Rich" and "You thought you'd never afford something this great in D.C. You were right."

Most of the financing for the campaign came from the Morris Goldseker Foundation, said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore Home Center. The Maryland Transit Administration contributed 50 three-month MARC train passes worth $400 each as incentives to commuters who moved to Baltimore.

"We've been wanting to do this for years," Gosson said. "There's just a groundswell of people talking about Baltimore. ... For people outside of Baltimore, it totally puts us on the map. It's saying, `Baltimore is a player.' "

Gosson said she could not provide the numbers of homes purchased because of the campaign but that she has watched the number of Washington residents attending Baltimore homebuying fairs more than triple, from an average of 25 families before the campaign to 82 families last month.

"It's creating a whole new aura around Baltimore," she said. "We're definitely a key component in the reshaping of the image of Baltimore."

It was the ad about square footage that caught the eye of Jennifer L. Richmond, who had been house shopping with friends in Washington and was discouraged with what they could get for their money.

"When I saw the ad, it was like the light bulb going on," said Richmond, 38, who rents a 900-square-foot condominium in Southwest Washington, where she does marketing for the Red Cross.

"Without seeing the ad, I think I would have stayed focused on D.C. ... I wasn't thinking of Baltimore. I knew I was frustrated with the housing market, but I didn't have a solution. The ad campaign provided me with a solution without me having to do anything," she said.

Richmond hopes to be settled in a new home in Baltimore with her two cats within six to eight months. She's looking for a house with exposed brick, wood floors and a fireplace. With the 1,500 square feet she hopes to find, she says, she might add a dog.

"When I find my perfect house in Baltimore, I'm going to laugh at my friends and say, `Look at what I got compared to what you got,' " Richmond said.

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