Most days, you'll find Irish immigrant John Moore on downtown Baltimore's west side, getting ready to turn what was long a sleepy insurance office into a hopping saloon with a steady flow of Harp beer and Guinness stout.
Maggie Moore's Irish Bar and Restaurant is scheduled to open in April in the 147-year-old Baltimore Equitable Society building at Eutaw and Fayette streets. It will have 200 seats on two levels, original wood paneling, a gas fireplace, 20-foot ceilings and a pair of mahogany bank counters reborn as bars.
Yet the head of an influential business group is sounding an alarm that city development officials must move faster on the west side to ensure that investments such as Moore's pay off as part of a lasting, areawide revitalization.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, calls the pub a welcome and needed addition. Still, he fears the nearby Hippodrome Theatre and the Centerpoint housing development could become a big "island" amid a sea of dilapidation and untapped potential.
"Centerpoint and the Hippodrome cannot be an island," said Fry, whose predecessor helped launch the $63 million public-private theater overhaul. "They have to be part of a continual effort of redevelopment opportunities."
That concern underscores the tenuous nature of the effort to revive the west side. The large swath between the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the Charles Street corridor was a thriving retail hub for decades before falling into a steep decline with "white flight" in the 1960s.
The Hippodrome and the $80-million-plus Centerpoint are seen as catalyzing - the theater because it has brought people in from the suburbs since its reopening in February, Centerpoint because it occupies a square block and will have about 400 market-rate apartments, plus street-level retail, when the project is finished.
A major threat to continued progress, Fry says, is the vacant Abell Building a block south of the planned pub and across the street from the theater and the Centerpoint site. Trees grow from the roofline, and its faM-gade looks haggard. Standing next to a gash in the sidewalk, one can hear water cascading inside the dank, dark basement.
"Some attention has to be given to it immediately," Fry said. He described the building as "an eyesore" that encourages theater patrons to get in their cars and drive straight home after a Broadway show.
The Abell's owner, Michael H. Abrams, says he is serious about renovating the six-story building for apartments. And city development officials, who have heard such promises before, say they are guardedly optimistic but may seize the building by condemnation if he fails to act.
Meanwhile, outside business groups - including the GBC,the Downtown Partnership and WestSide Renaissance Inc. - have been losing patience with Abrams and the city.
West side advocates say there are a few bright signs of spillover from Centerpoint and the Hippodrome:
The Park Avenue Cafe is doing brisk business, and the MemSahib Indian restaurant has survived at Lexington Market. A new apartment building is rising at Lombard and Howard streets, and a new university dorm is open on Fayette.
And tenants are moving into Centerpoint's completed units on Howard Street. The Bozzuto property management firm says the most popular are loft apartments in a restored building with hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and spiral staircases.
"We're seeing people walking dogs down the street, jogging. There are these little signs of community that are becoming evident," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance. "It's very important to continue the progress."
One source of concern to him and others is the "superblock" on Lexington Street east of Howard. The city asked for, and got, bids from developers to enliven it. But Kreitner's group thinks the city can do better and has urged it to seek more ambitious ideas - a step the city's Baltimore Development Corp. is considering.
Another problem Fry points to is a pair of decrepit city-owned buildings on the west side of Eutaw near Lexington Market. Fry said their poor condition adds to a perception of the Hippodrome and Centerpoint as an island.
Sharon R. Grinnell, the BDC's departing chief operating officer and west side coordinator, said there is no plan for the properties. But she said new plywood might be installed to improve the appearance.
Nothing bothers Fry more, however, than the sorry state of the ornate brick Abell Building, built around 1878 by Sun founder A.S. Abell. It is not only historically significant but is perched at the west side's most promising corner, Baltimore and Eutaw, Fry said.
Abrams, president of the David & Annie Abrams Realty Corp., has said since 1995 that he would revamp the Abell, according to the Downtown Partnership. Two years ago, he told The Sun he was "in the midst of redeveloping it." Back then, Grinnell told the newspaper: "We really want to see it move forward."