Waterfront project put city on the map

While it hasn't cured Baltimore's ills, the tourist magnet is seen as a symbol of the city's potential.

Harborplace At 25

July 01, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

From the time the sun rose in the ridiculously blue sky to the time it set, allowing party lights to sparkle and dance in the gently lapping dark water, the scene on July 2, 1980, in Baltimore's Inner Harbor was nothing if not cinematic.

The Baltimore Symphony sliced into the summer evening with the rousing opening chords of "The 1812 Overture" just as fireworks erupted and thousands of people, who'd assembled at the water's edge to celebrate something new, turned their heads to the night sky.

Surreal. That's how even the most cynical recall that day, the opening of Harborplace. Who made off with their humble Baltimore and left this showpiece behind?

Here were two green-roofed pavilions, filled with shops and eateries. Here were crowds, hordes actually, moving among them with money to spend. And here, strangest of all, was the embryo of a sentiment that maybe -- just maybe -- there was something to this Baltimore renaissance.

When "The End" finally rolled on that celluloid-ready scene, Wayne Brokke was spent. It was 2 a.m. and the proud proprietor of a brand new Harborplace restaurant was only now packing up.

He emptied the day's earnings from the register into a paper grocery bag because he had misplaced the combination to the new safe and turned out the lights. On deserted downtown streets, he walked home, hugging a bag with $8,000 in cash.

At his Otterbein doorstep, he noticed that someone had propped a record album -- the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie -- with instructions to listen to the first song. In a post-adrenaline haze, he plunked it onto his turntable, sat down on his steps, and listened as Kermit, of all vocalists, sang a sweetly sappy song about rainbows, dreamers and searching for something better.

He cried. Out of joy, exhaustion, relief and pride.

"It was a dream for all of us who were there," Brokke says now. Like a movie.

`Welcome to Baltimore'

If ever there was magic, any Hollywood-worthy moments at those twin pavilions, one would be hard-pressed to find them now, so many years since that summer opening day.

Harborplace turns 25 tomorrow. Today, dignitaries will mark the occasion with a parade and platitudes. Cheers to 25 years as the city's surest tourist magnet. Cheers to the one of the nation's top-grossing outlets for the Cheesecake Factory and Hooters. Cheers to success.

Harborplace, now, is iconic, not breath-taking. It's an Inner Harbor tour stop. The pavilions wrap Pratt and Light streets like a reassuring hug and light up like beacons, telling visitors, "You're here, welcome to Baltimore."

The reason people will celebrate Harboplace this weekend is not so much for what it is -- though the attraction is in the midst of an overhaul that might shock those who haven't been there in a few years. It's for what it means.

Almost since its inception, Harborplace has been a symbol of Baltimore's potential. Before it, as Bruce Alexander, a retired executive of Rouse, the company that developed Harborplace, likes to say, "You should have seen what was not there."

And afterward, "Boom," says Martin Millspaugh, who helped guide the early Inner Harbor development. "The place exploded."

In quick order came the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the waterfront's first hotel -- the Hyatt. Later, the Power Plant, many more hotels, the American Visionary Art Museum ...

And today, the crush of tourist, corporate and residential development ringing the waterline feeds $60 million a year in taxes to the city.

Harborplace, most figure, kicked all of that into gear.

Yet while the blocks within shouting distance of the water thrived, Harborplace's magic touch never reached the vast majority of Baltimore's ailing neighborhoods. Its rush of tourists rarely ventured past its heavily trafficked promenades. "None of it solves a lot of the city's base problems. It doesn't fix schools, or solve crime or clean up the alleys," Millspaugh says. "But it does very well for this corner."

A dying city

If ever a city needed a happy ending and a shot of confidence, it was Baltimore in the 1950s. And the story of how Harborplace came to be, particularly when retold by the men and women who were there and watched it unfold, sounds like something that should start with a "once upon a time."

Like, once upon a time, a city was dying.

Residents fleeing to the suburbs. Offices emptying. Stores going under. A waterfront ignored.

Taking the part of knights on white horses were Baltimore businessmen desperate to turn things around.

Their scheme was not only brazen but dead risky: Convince the government to give them millions of dollars to build new things in a town people were turning their backs on.

Though hardly a soul had touched the city's rotting harbor in years, the corporate pioneers and planners they hired knew Baltimore's water could be its salvation.

"Right there at the threshold to downtown," Millspaugh says. "We felt that was where the city started, that was the soul of the city. But you couldn't see it."

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