In 1984, downtown Baltimore was a very different place than it is today. After reaching its pinnacle in the 1940s, Baltimore began to witness a decline in population, employment and investment that continued well into the next four decades. The downtown area was no exception.
Despite successful efforts to redevelop Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, much of the area outside of these districts remained unchanged. Vacant storefronts along Charles Street were the norm. Graffiti and other signs of vagrancy were increasing. Streets were dark and sidewalks crumbling. Parking was lacking, and there was an overall sense of malaise.
Merchants and business owners found themselves at an important crossroads. Should they follow others leaving downtown, or take action to reverse the tide?
"The merchants on Charles Street are asking for help. ... Is this something you would be interested in working on?" With that call from Mayor William Donald Schaefer's office, I was given the assignment of a lifetime. With Mayor Schaefer's commitment and strong, effective business leadership from the likes of Grant Hathaway, Bernie Trueschler, Meb Turner, Bill Struever, and David Tarlow, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore was born.
This month's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Downtown Partnership calls for reflection on the many accomplishments that have emerged under the watchful eye of this organization. Thanks to the work of thousands of people, downtown Baltimore in 2009 is a clean, safe and attractive community bustling with activity around the clock.
Clean and safe. In 1992, in response to concerns about safety, the Downtown Partnership established one of the first special improvement districts in the country. Support for the Downtown Management District grew out of meetings with major tenants and property owners, starting a tradition of regular communication between the partnership and its constituents. Now, each day, dozens of uniformed guides provide a watchful eye and helping hand, while "ambassadors" clean up trash and remove graffiti, sweating the details to ensure that downtown is clean and safe.
Attractive. When employer surveys performed in 1993 contrasted lush, green office parks in the suburbs with downtown's crumbling streets and sidewalks, the Downtown Partnership set about to improve downtown's streetscape. Funded by the city, the partnership began rebuilding sidewalks, paving streets and installing decorative benches and lights. This work continues. The renovation of Center Plaza created a beautiful, green open space in the center of downtown, and Pratt Street improvements are beautifying this important corridor.
Easy to reach and navigate. Exploring downtown has never been easier, the result of a comprehensive signage system established under the direction of the partnership. After a 1997 Downtown Partnership assessment of the city's parking crisis, the city built thousands of new spaces and created an independent Parking Authority to better manage parking in downtown. A new downtown-wide bus circulator will be introduced this fall, thanks in large part to the partnership's long-standing interest in finding new ways to help people get around downtown.
Fun. Downtown is now thriving 24/7, all year long, in part because of Downtown Partnership improvements and ongoing marketing campaigns, special events, and dining guides that help to maintain and increase the visibility of downtown as a destination for shopping, dining and night life.
A great neighborhood. Close to 40,000 people now call downtown home, due in large measure to the efforts of the partnership. With funding from The Abell Foundation, the partnership evaluated the potential for conversion of old "Class B" office buildings to residences, helping to spur a whole new market. Recently, even more buildings have been converted to boutique hotels, adding further to the positive mix of activity downtown.
Of course, downtown will continue to face challenges as well as new opportunities. Although Baltimore is positioned better than most urban areas, the effects of the current, national economic downturn will likely affect downtown's office and retail sectors for some time. Fortunately, our educational and medical institutions provide strong anchors for downtown, and a growing residential sector will help provide stability as our community weathers the national economic downturn.
Downtown Baltimore is a more livable, attractive and competitive place than ever. Under the leadership of the Downtown Partnership, downtown Baltimore will continue to evolve and improve, playing an increasingly important role in our region's future.
Laurie Schwartz, a founder of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore was its executive director for 15 years. She does consulting and contract work on economic development projects throughout the city. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.