A chance to grow

April 22, 2007

MarylandReady.com is promoting Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties to workers relocating here as part of the U.S. military's base realignment and closure (BRAC) plans, but the photos flashing atop the Web site are a come-on for the big city down the road: Camden Yards, the National Aquarium, the Hippodrome Theatre and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Why settle in the suburbs when Baltimore offers neighborhoods and housing within minutes of the state's premier sports, cultural and entertainment venues? That's the question the city should be posing to several thousand military personnel expected to relocate from New Jersey and Virginia. It should be the thrust of a targeted, citywide campaign, and it shouldn't dally - competition will be stiff but the potential payoff rich.

Baltimore has a real chance to increase its population by several thousand, helping to neutralize its steady decline; last year, the city recorded a net loss of 8,000 residents. The population decline has cost Baltimore revenue, stature and political clout in Annapolis. But more important, it has eroded the social fabric of the city, widening the gap between haves and have-nots even as development has revitalized downtown and the harbor.

A stronger city benefits the region and Maryland, and as state officials plan for the BRAC influx, Baltimore stands up as an example of smart, affordable growth.

The jobs relocating to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade pay well, on average about $88,000 to $90,000, and a state economic development study estimates that about 70 percent of BRAC employees will be homeowners. That same study projects that 10 percent of the new work force, or more than 2,500 people, will locate in Baltimore. But the value of the city's housing stock might well appeal to the 7,000 families the study says will be looking for medium-cost housing and the 4,500 in the market for lower-cost housing.

Unlike its county competitors, Baltimore offers the cultural and social amenities of city living as well as a range of housing values within a relatively easy commute of the bases by rail or car. Consider this: About 62 percent of city houses for sale would be affordable for someone earning $86,000, according to the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

The administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon recognizes what's at stake: It has budgeted $250,000 for a marketing campaign to be led by Live Baltimore, the nonprofit group that promotes city living, and has established a BRAC working group in City Hall. The city also should explore with the state a new MARC station near the Bayview medical complex in East Baltimore and expansion of MARC service in West Baltimore.

But the first order of business must be to identify likely city dwellers from the military ranks and defense contractors, introduce them to Baltimore - and sell them on city life.

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