Region can't ignore diagnosis of its ailments

February 11, 2003|By Timothy D. Armbruster

TAKE ONE frog, the old story goes, and place it in a pan of water. Then ever so gradually raise the water temperature a degree at a time. The frog remains oblivious to what's happening until it's too late, getting himself cooked.

There's a moral in this fable for the Baltimore region: Absent a sense of emergency, bad things can gradually creep up on us if we aren't paying attention.

Too often, otherwise well-informed acquaintances say something like, "Well, the city is in really bad shape just now, but overall the region is very healthy."

But how healthy is Greater Baltimore in comparison with peers such as Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington? In other words, how healthy is our region?

This is a critical question, because, like it or not, it is the condition of an entire metropolis, not just a central city, that determines economic competitiveness. The future of the Baltimore area depends upon the social health and economic vitality of its interdependent and connected jurisdictions.

No potential investor or bright professional in the United States, Hong Kong or Brussels will pay any attention to the economic and social assets of a single, artificially defined political county or city when deciding whether to live or do business in central Maryland. It's the whole that counts.

The Baltimore region's report card is mediocre, at best.

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, The State of the Baltimore Region, issues of housing choice and especially crime place a cloud over this region's future.

The housing problem is twofold: abandonment of city properties and how that devalues city neighborhoods, and the inability of many city residents to afford alternatives in outlying parts of the region where, increasingly, the jobs are.

The good news in the study is that, compared with other regions in terms of location, climate and cultural amenities, we enjoy a very high quality of life. But even here, there are alarming indicators of future dangers. For example, Greater Baltimore's air quality is especially bad. The quality of our water is seriously wanting.

Maryland has been a national leader in making the public aware of the dangers of uncontrolled sprawl and the need to balance development with environmental quality. Nonetheless, the study shows the Baltimore region continues to lose irreplaceable open space far faster than we gain new residents. This has real costs for all of us, because sprawl means more roads and sewers and schools. And it means more pollution and more time spent idling in traffic, especially with inadequate mass transit as the alternative.

Data collected by UMBC researchers point out that the Baltimore region is blessed with an exceptionally strong college and university presence that attracts more academic research and development dollars than any other region. Yet our economy trails its peers in job growth, small business lending and other measures of economic well-being.

Longer term, our ability - or inability - to create jobs, produce a better-educated work force, reverse the city's population loss, rejuvenate older suburbs and attract new residents from other parts of the country (and abroad) will be clear markers of regional progress.

History teaches that great changes in thought or action almost always spring from crisis. And although many citizens and groups are working to understand our regional challenges and marshal the resources to meet them, there doesn't seem to be a sense of civic or economic urgency.

Our friend the frog, to his ultimate peril, was oblivious to the temperature of the water swirling around him. As a region, Greater Baltimore can't fall into that deadly trap. If we hope to compete effectively for jobs and talent in a fast-changing and unforgiving global environment, this region needs to perform much better than we currently are. Being "fair" or "pretty good" won't suffice.

Timothy D. Armbruster is president and CEO of the Goldseker Foundation, which sponsored the UMBC study and issued The Frog's Lesson: The Baltimore Region 2002.

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