Selling the city

For 10 years, Live Baltimore has been convincing Washington residents and others that city living is charming

December 30, 2007|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

When Ayodeji "Deji" Dawodu's car broke down a few years ago forcing the Washington resident to take the metro to work, he came across something that would make him pack up and move.

What he saw on the metro was an advertisement by Live Baltimore Home Center enticing Washington residents to relocate to Charm City.

"I never really contemplated Baltimore before," Dawodu said. "But going through their Web site and seeing the incentives the city offers was really good help."

Dawodu now owns two Baltimore homes, both found using Live Baltimore's services. He has also convinced two friends and his girlfriend to leave Washington and buy homes here.

This scenario is exactly what the people behind Live Baltimore had in mind when they began their campaign to attract city dwellers 10 years ago.

Before Live Baltimore, there were groups trying to lure just about everyone to the city -- including businesses, tourists, developers and day-trippers -- but only grassroots efforts were being made to attract homeowners. That's until Live Baltimore came on the scene, changing the way people look at city living and racking up some impressive numbers.

Since Live Baltimore's inception, home prices in the city have risen 205 percent. Live Baltimore has trained more than 1,600 real estate agents through its continuing education classes. More than 1,400 city residents serve as ambassadors for the home center, offering first-hand advice on their neighborhoods. And after losing population every decade since 1950, it increased by almost 900 residents in 2006.

"Our primary focus is to concentrate on making the city of Baltimore a preferred living destination," said Anna Custer, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center. "From the beginning, it's been about the residents of our city wanting to see a better Baltimore, wanting more people in on it and trying to encourage ways for the city to grow."

The home center is in the middle of its third advertising push to win over Washington residents by promoting Baltimore as a great place to call home and as an affordable alternative.

"Since beginning the D.C. campaign, we've seen a positive net migration from the D.C. metro area to Baltimore. We like to think Live Baltimore played a part in that," Custer said.

For Dawodu, who's studying to be a graphic designer and photographer, Baltimore is just what he was looking for: ethnic restaurants, authentic neighborhoods, an artist-friendly community and what he calls a smart real estate buy.

"I lived in D.C. through the revitalization ... when I wanted to buy a house [the prices] were so out of control I just missed the boat," said Dawodu, who first purchased in Upton and now lives in Panway in the Greater Mondawmin community. "I bought in neighborhoods that once they reach their peak will be in good locations with good amenities."

While home hunting, he attended one of Live Baltimore's education classes and qualified for the city to pay for his home inspection. He now volunteers with Live Baltimore on a regular basis.

Last month the organization officially celebrated its 10th anniversary.

"The vision in the beginning was so clear, because there was such an absence of any real effort to promote city living," said one of Live Baltimore's founders, Cheryl Casciani, who is the director of community investment for the Baltimore Community Foundation. "It's been a satisfying 10 years to watch the organization grow and develop."

Ongoing mission

Casciani was part of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which in 1997 partnered with a grass roots group known as encore baltiMORE! to promote the city as an ideal living destination. In 2002, Live Baltimore became an independent, nonprofit organization.

Raising awareness and promoting city living remains Live Baltimore's core mission.

"Live Baltimore was way ahead of its time. We were at the forefront of really making things happen," said Tracy Gosson, who joined the campaign in 1998 as its first executive director.

Gosson is credited with leading the organization into what is today considered a national model on how to attract people to city life. In developing the concept, Live Baltimore founders looked to places such as Cleveland that had a home center, but then greatly expanded on the idea. Many cities, including Cleveland, soon turned to Live Baltimore for advice.

One of the first priorities was for Gosson to set up a Web site for prospective Baltimore homebuyers and renters. Neighborhood profiles, information on incentive programs and a list of preferred real estate agents were all part of the Web site at a time when Internet technology was just becoming mainstream.

"I made it my business to be an expert on anything that had to do with home-buying trends, the city and the neighborhoods," Gosson said. The hard work paid off, and the Web site now attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.

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