Public-private partnership to take on Inner Harbor care


Two years after business leaders sternly warned that Baltimore's crown jewel, the Inner Harbor, would tarnish beyond repair if someone didn't take responsibility for it, a new organization is forming for that job.

Realizing that the city has neither the money nor the staff to buff the waterfront to a world-class sheen, the Baltimore Waterfront Partnership, a public-private effort, will take on the task of landscaping, maintenance and all the little things that can turn a good harbor into a great one.

In essence, the group aims to provide the stretch of harbor from the under-construction Ritz-Carlton Residences to Central Avenue with an attentive, detail-oriented manager and a passionate, dedicated group of advocates, the absence of which, many argue, is evident in every chip bag and soda bottle floating in the waterway.

"It's going to be a thousand details that will be taken care of that will just add to the enjoyment of the experience," said Andy Frank, Baltimore Development Corp.'s vice president. He helped create the partnership through his temporary role of Inner Harbor development coordinator. "When you're here in this place with gardens and landscaping and public ambassadors, you'll have this feeling that this city is important."

To pay for this white-glove treatment, city leaders hope eventually to create a waterfront improvement district where property owners would be taxed. Initially, the city along with some of Baltimore's best-known businesses and institutions will voluntarily contribute to the group's $1.4 million annual budget.

Those kicking in include the Cordish Company, the developer of Power Plant Live; the National Aquarium in Baltimore; and General Growth Properties, owner of Harborplace.

To create a district that could levy a tax, the partnership would need the blessing of the General Assembly. The plan is to go after the tax-district status in a few years, Frank said, once people have had a chance to see the good that the partnership can do.

Ultimately, Frank said, the goal would be to extend the tax district to neighborhoods spanning the harbor from Locust Point to Canton, so the waterfront could also be improved in those areas.

The organization plans to file incorporation papers next week, with a goal of setting up shop early next year. A board of directors and an executive director, who has yet to be named, will run the nonprofit organization.

In 2003, the Greater Baltimore Committee presented Mayor Martin O'Malley with a report bluntly pointing to neglect at the Inner Harbor. It described uncoordinated management, poor maintenance and a lack of standards.

"This important asset is inherently fragile, and can easily deteriorate in a surprisingly short time," the report read. "The huge economic and cultural benefits to the city can quickly disappear.

"Immediate attention must be given to the harbor and its challenges," it warned, "if it is to continue as a top attraction and premier landmark of the city."

The next year, O'Malley tapped Frank to lead an intervention of sorts, to figure out a better way of running the Inner Harbor. The idea for the partnership and the improvement district grew from those efforts.

GBC President Donald C. Fry said yesterday that the creation of the partnership soothes many of his group's concerns.

"You needed to have a group who woke up and went to sleep every day worried and focused on the waterfront area," Fry said. "This clearly is an organization whose mission is clearly defined."

The partnership won't be an immediate fix for some of the harbor's more stubborn deficiencies, Fry said, but it will help.

"It's a significant step toward continuing the vibrancy and vitality of the harbor," he said.

The partnership's work will supplement, not replace, service by the city. The city would still remove snow, haul away trash and repair light fixtures, but the partnership would step in to take things to a higher level.

According to the advisory committee's report, that sort of standard includes:

Trash containers never more than three-quarters full.

Grass 2 to 3 inches tall in the cool season and 1 to 2 inches when it's warm.

All areas litter-free at all times.

In addition to their contributions for the partnership, some companies, including General Growth, Cordish and H&S Properties, have chipped in to pay for four small boats that can be used to remove trash from the water and to hire a maintenance crew to pick up garbage and remove graffiti and weeds.

Fry said it's obvious that the city can't afford to maintain the waterfront to that degree.

"We've seen that's just not reality in modern urban cities," he said.

Michael D. Hankin will be chairman of the partnership's board. He is president and chief executive officer of the Brown Advisory investment firm, which has offices on Bond Street.

Hankin said splitting the burden is critical because the harbor has suffered as the businesses and institutions that surround it adopted a "free rider" mentality, willing to keep up their own doorsteps but not much more than that.

"What we have here now are businesses saying, `We've got to do our part,'" he said. "We can't take it for granted. If it doesn't look like it's being taken care of, it will turn people off."

National Aquarium Executive Director David Pittenger agreed that just as everyone around the harbor shares the responsibility for letting it slip, everyone must work to boost it back up.

"Over time, we got used to looking at things," Pittenger said, mentioning signs that don't help visitors find their way and litter strewn about the public parks. "There was a need for everyone to commit to very high standards."

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