After Baltimore's homegrown businesses all sell out, what will be left?

December 21, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,jean.marbella@baltsun.com

When did Baltimore become a junked car, sold off for parts?

I was still trying to make sense of Constellation Energy, about to be spirited away by a Midwesterner who was going to take our last Fortune 500 company from us, but at the last minute running into the arms of les francais and the chance to stay ici.

Then, just as that whirlwind was settling down, we learned that Harborplace - Harborplace! Centerpiece of the Baltimore Renaissance! Engine of its waterfront revival! - had been put up for sale by its cash-poor, bankruptcy-threatened landlord.

And before anyone could figure out what that meant - whither the dragon-headed paddle boats, the Peruvian flute players, the statue of William Donald Schaefer? - came the news that Provident, the largest and nearly last of the big, locally owned banks, had been swallowed whole by M&T Bank.

Coming on the heels of recent upheavals involving other institutions in the city - I'd have to include the personally unnerving bankruptcy filing of the company that owns The Baltimore Sun - it's hard to know what's next.

It's not just Baltimore, as businesses large and small and coast to coast are going belly up, looking for corporate or governmental saviors or just going pear-shaped. And it's not just something that began this week: For decades now, the trend has been for many of Baltimore's homegrown entities - Hecht's, Alex. Brown, even Harborplace's original developer, the Rouse Company - to disappear into the nether regions of larger, out-of-town corporations.

Still, it's been an unsettling week, even if you don't work for one of the companies in flux. It feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet and the molecules are rearranging themselves - but into what, who knows?

Even if nothing actually changes for most of us - no, we aren't going to have to pay our BGE bills in euros, and no, even if someone buys Harborplace, they're not going to pick it up and move it somewhere else - I can't help but think that Baltimore as a whole loses something in this flurry of transactions.

A city is more than its GPS coordinates; it is the sum of its unique parts. And not just the big stuff, the history and sports teams and monuments and such, but also the Donnas and Charles Theatres and First Mariners. It's what makes Baltimore Baltimore and not, say, Pittsburgh, Crystal City or exit 53 off the highway.

But maybe that's all changing. Maybe it doesn't matter who owns what anymore, only that whoever it is can keep the lights on and the ATM filled and the fudge-makers singing. Maybe an economic downturn is no time to be sentimental, or provincial.

Companies come and go all the time, yet what's going on now seems something entirely different from the usual and natural life cycle of individual businesses. Today, it seems like entire industries are faltering, and sequentially - housing one day, financial services the next, retail, automaking and who knows what after that.

I guess we should take comfort in the fact that Baltimore is far from being where, say, a city like Detroit finds itself today - its major industry bailed out by the feds but by no means assured of a turnaround. Our thing is no one thing, so presumably we're in a better place. (Hey, we still have those local industries, Johns Hopkins Inc. and John Waters LLP.)

But if the company that owns so prominent a landmark as Harborplace is panhandling for cash, it's hard not to worry about what happens next. What if no one buys it, and General Growth Properties goes bankrupt? What if someone does buy it, but turns it into, I don't know, a NASCAR track? Actually, it's hard think of anything that would make money, let alone sense, in this economy.

What's so baffling about all this is companies seem to get into trouble these days because they take on so much debt when they buy other companies. (General Growth is trying to sell Harborplace, Faneuil Hall in Boston and other so-called festival marketplaces to raise funds to pay off a loan it took out to buy Rouse in 2004.) And yet the solution to such woes is to find another company willing to buy your company - which it can usually only do by taking on more debt.

Will the circle, as the folk song goes, be unbroken? Hard to imagine how or when, but hopefully, it will be before the city becomes merely a collection of franchises and outposts.

And before we have to change the signs coming into the city to "Baltimore: Liquidating Business. Everything Must Go. No Reasonable Offer Refused."

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