Starting today, a new team of visitor guides will bring enhanced hospitality services to Baltimore's waterfront - for the benefit of tourists and downtown's growing base of residents.
The Partnership for Baltimore's Waterfront, an organization created last fall to boost the image and atmosphere of the area along the water, is behind the new initiative, which will span the summer tourist season.
"For some, the Inner Harbor is a tourist destination," said Michael D. Hankin, the organization's chairman and president and chief executive of Brown Advisory, an investment management firm. "But, this is opening up the possibility for it ... becoming a centerpiece for the community."
Financed by the city and voluntary agreements with businesses and attractions ringing the harbor from Key Highway to Fells Point, the organization wants to create a permanent Business Improvement District financed by a property tax surcharge, such as one that operates in city center.
State legislation would be required to give the city the authority to add the mandatory surcharge, said Laurie Schwartz, an independent consultant to the waterfront partnership. The city would set the rate.
"Our goal is to have the waterfront guide serve as a welcome face and helpful hand to direct visitors to all the attractions, especially the new ones on the waterfront," she said.
The 16 guides, who will work seven days a week from noon to 8 p.m., were hired under contract from the Downtown Partnership. They will wear uniforms and provide directions and offer restaurant and entertainment suggestions.
Retaining the Downtown Partnership employees enabled the new waterfront organization to get up and running faster than starting from scratch, said Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership.
"It would take a lot more time for them to create a formal structure and hire employees, but that is what they're working toward," Fowler said.
The waterfront partnership also has contracted with Living Classrooms' Project Serve to help keep the waterfront clean and also will contract with professional landscapers.
The organization was formed in response to a critical 2003 report by the Greater Baltimore Committee that outlined neglect in the Inner Harbor, pointing to problems caused by uncoordinated management, poor maintenance and a lack of standards.
It warned that without some organization taking responsibility for the waterfront, its image would tarnish because the city could not maintain the waterfront to the appropriate standards.
"Things were just moving along without real direction, and there wasn't attention given to this tremendous asset which is a real economic benefit to the city and the region," said Donald C. Fry, GBC president. "I do think this is going to show some real attention to the harbor. There's more work to be done."
Even with a relatively small budget of $1.4 million, a dedicated organization of committed people can make a difference, said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president at the Baltimore Development Corp., who is Inner Harbor Coordinator and also on the waterfront partnership board.
"I think we assumed the Inner Harbor institutions have been strong enough to carry the Inner Harbor experience on their own," he said. "We don't think they can carry the Inner Harbor any longer. It needs to be a total experience."
The city will contribute about 40 percent of the cost of the waterfront partnership's operation, Frank said.
Among the standards that will be maintained by the organization's team of handymen are trash cans never more than three-quarters full, grass kept trimmed and all areas litter-free.
A change in mood along the waterfront already is visible, Hankin said.
"Compare the number of people who go jogging at 5:30 or 6 [p.m.] from Bond Street to the Rusty Scupper," he said. "Two years ago, it was six. Now at 6 o'clock, you could easily pass 50. It's exciting. It's an area that's thriving."
For businesses, attractions and other development along the water, the current success of the waterfront and its promenade bodes well.
"It makes it easy for people who are selling condos or renting apartments or running restaurants, to attract people," Hankin said.
"It makes it easier for employees to hire people. The health of the area is a huge factor in attracting people to work there. People walk on the promenade, look out at the water and say, `Wow, I want to be here,"' he said.
"You can tell when people take pride in their area," Frank said. "It's impressive when there are people sweating the details."