Harbor needs attention

October 31, 2003

DURING THE early 1980s, when the Inner Harbor was glitzy and new, Baltimore boosters crowed that it attracted more visitors than Disneyland. Today, the novelty - and record crowds - are gone.

Their absence makes it even easier to see that the harbor's common areas, from sidewalks to overhead bridges, are getting shabby. Mayor Martin O'Malley should swiftly heed the Greater Baltimore Committee's call and designate a caretaker.

Currently no one is in charge of overall maintenance. The Public Works Department oversees some areas, Recreation and Parks some others. Coordination is woefully inadequate. Because development oversight along the shoreline also is divided among an alphabet soup of agencies, architectural design standards have been compromised and traffic control neglected.

This is appallingly poor management of a waterfront district that includes such signature attractions as the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the American Visionary Art Museum.

A GBC report issued Wednesday recommended the creation of a new not-for-profit, quasi-governmental entity to take charge. That seems the most viable option for an agency that would also supervise marina-related operations, including the harbormaster and dockmaster.

The GBC report refers to the now-defunct Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc. as an organizational model. That quasi-governmental agency performed coordination functions relatively well until it fell victim to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's dubious reorganization nearly 15 years ago.

That management group had one glaring weakness, though: It operated without public scrutiny. As a result, it permitted an inappropriate pavilion to be constructed next to the Constellation. The precedent paved the way for many other extraneous buildings that today clutter the shoreline.

The lesson is clear. If a new harbor agency is to be quasi-governmental, its charter must include an unwavering pledge to transparency and public participation, a commitment long overdue from the quasi-governmental Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and the Baltimore Development Corp., whose cooperation would be essential for the harbor agency's success.

Another lesson is equally clear: The Inner Harbor needs a vocal advocate at City Hall. Otherwise, neglect will continue, endangering Baltimore's key tourist attractions.

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