West-side revival

January 09, 2004

THE EARTH HAS been turned, and construction begins on the next big spoke in downtown's west-side economic wheel. The groundbreaking for the University of Maryland, Baltimore's biotech park project Thursday morning adds to the area's continuing transformation from near-death to cultural and fiscal vibrancy.

Baltimore is banking on the long-term success of the UMB BioPark, which is to start housing tech-related firms by year's end, and the east-side's mammoth biotech and housing project, which has just started demolition work. It's a long-term plan; such firms take years to even suggest a product might turn a profit.

But it's a worthy bet: Maryland has a critical mass of biotech firms, many along the Interstate 270 corridor, and Baltimore has the draw of major research universities, teaching hospitals and high-tech business incubators and other support. UMB officials say they already have 14 prospective tenants - two really serious ones - nearly a year before space in the first building will be ready. As many as 8,000 jobs could be added to the city's rolls when both parks are filled - one-third of them for those with just a high school degree.

For the west side, another anchor actually in progress helps smaller developers - and their banks - confidently plan projects that can knit the block-long biggies together. The blocks between UMB, the restored Hippodrome Theater and the in-progress Centerpoint complex, as well as those to Lexington Market and central downtown, can make or break the feeling of community in the neighborhood.

For the university, the project is a step along an ambitious growth path, as well as a chance to better connect with the city's private sector. The recently opened law school and health science research facility, and construction of the dental school and more housing also are extending the school's footprint as well as drawing more people to the neighborhood.

And as UMB reaches for the first time across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard - the BioPark is on the west side of the boulevard - it offers a new bridge to downtown for Pigtown, Poppleton, Hollins Market and other areas long in the doldrums.

It was standing room only inside the party-sized heated tent on West Baltimore Street on Thursday for the fancy speeches and shovel formalities. Next comes the hard work - finding the new-business leaders to invest here and stay the course - that will make this project's promises real.

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