Coming together to save city

Fifty years ago today, civic leaders formed the Greater Baltimore Committee to strive for a better future.

January 05, 2005|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore they knew was a city in despair. Its retailers and residents were fleeing to the suburbs, property values were in free fall, and signs of urban decay were everywhere.

There was no Charles Center, no Jones Falls Expressway, no Harborplace, no convention center, no Metro subway, no Ravens and no National Aquarium.

Marshalling their economic star power, a who's who of Baltimore business leaders formed the Greater Baltimore Committee 50 years ago today and threw their weight behind all of those revitalization projects and more. What emerged was a marriage of public and private interests that became a model for urban revitalization copied nationally and internationally by cities facing crises.

"If they wanted something done, we did it. If we wanted something done, they helped us," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who served on Baltimore's City Council and later as mayor during much of the GBC's early history. "It was not a matter of competition between government and business. It's never been the same."

Though some say the GBC has lost potency as the corporate headquarters that spawned its early leaders disappeared, most agree that it remains a force in City Hall and Annapolis, helping to lobby for key development projects.

"The landscape has changed, the population demographics have changed, the issues of poverty have grown, but the effectiveness of the organization has not, I think, been diminished," said Donald Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who served as president of the GBC for nine years beginning in 1993. He is president of SunTrust Banks' Maryland division.

As it celebrates 50 years, the GBC, whose offices on the 17th floor of a downtown skyscraper overlook the Inner Harbor it helped spawn, is trying to find its footing in a city at a crossroads. Baltimore's old-line industries are disappearing, increasingly replaced by high-technology, service-oriented businesses.

Over the years, the GBC has refined its role as other business groups such as the Greater Baltimore Alliance and the Downtown Partnership emerged. The three agreed to coordinate their efforts after a May 2003 summit, with the GBC concentrating on public policy, infrastructure and improving the business climate for the metropolitan area.

More recently, it has lobbied for the creation of a 2 million-square-foot biotechnology research center on Baltimore's east side, and advocated for a similar $300 million University of Maryland, Baltimore BioPark on the city's west side. It is also credited with leading the drive to revitalize the Hippodrome Theatre, considered an anchor for redevelopment of the west side. It recently helped win state funding for initial development of two more subway lines and other mass transit initiatives.

The projects are symbolic of the GBC's and the city's shift toward a knowledge-based economy and away from the smokestack industries that once dominated. Beginning 10 years ago, the GBC identified biotechnology and health care as industries that could propel the region's economy.

"The GBC is every bit as relevant today if not more so because it serves as an organization that brings about changes and pushes and prods for advancements to occur," said Donald C. Fry, GBC president.

It all started with a Jan. 5, 1955, meeting at the Elkridge Club that drew Baltimore's movers and shakers, from Robert H. Levi of retailer Hecht Co. and Thomas Butler, president of Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co., to Alonzo G. Decker, president of Black & Decker, and a young James W. Rouse, a GBC linchpin who went on to become a nationally renowned urban planner and developer. There were more than 80 in all, representing just about every business with a financial stake in the city's survival.

"It was the greatest conglomeration of business manpower you could ever find, and they all wanted to save the city," Schaefer said.

The genesis for the organization can be found in Baltimore's "Governmental Efficiency and Economy Commission," which issued a report in 1952 that painted a bleak picture. The report warned that the cost of government was rising at a time when the city's tax base was shrinking rapidly. It concluded by saying that unless radical steps were taken, the municipal corporation could be bankrupt within a generation.

Rouse, then a mortgage banker, and his partner, Hunter Moss, were among a handful of young business leaders who spent several years badgering Baltimore's business community to take action. Doors all over town were slammed in their faces until they recruited Clarence W. Miles, a corporate lawyer and president of the Orioles baseball team, in 1955 to help them gain support from Mercantile and other key Baltimore institutions.

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