City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake had a vision a few years ago for creating a more vibrant, walkable downtown, by linking west-side sports and entertainment venues such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 1st Mariner Arena and the Hippodrome Theatre to form one district with a strong "sense of place."
As with many other proposals for improving Baltimore's urban landscape, that one has been slow to become reality.
Now, as Rawlings-Blake prepares to take office as Baltimore's next mayor, she is looking to dust off some of her ideas for the growth and development of the city where she grew up. While she has newfound political muscle to bring her ideas to fruition, she will have to do so as the city fights to come out of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
The mayor-to-be said she plans to become more heavily involved in economic development projects throughout the city, building on her experience as council president and head of Baltimore's Board of Estimates, a panel that plays a key role in shaping building and land use. She and her aides say that jump-starting projects, large and small, would create jobs and help fuel an economic recovery.
"I truly believe we have a lot of strengths that we can build upon," Rawlings-Blake said. "It's not looking for the next humongous project. It's looking at the assets we already have to see how we can grow from our strengths."
When Mayor Sheila Dixon steps down next month, she will leave behind a long list of unfinished developments throughout the city, from the stalled slots parlor on Russell Street to stillborn plans for a new downtown arena to vacant blocks that were supposed to become hotels and office towers.
In the days since Dixon disclosed her plans to resign as part of a settlement after her embezzlement conviction, Rawlings-Blake has taken steps to reassure the business community. Her recently announced transition team includes a committee that will focus on jobs and economic development.
"I am asking a very smart group of people to take a fresh look at the city," she said. "I know that jobs will create a way out of this Great Recession, and I depend on the business community to stay committed to Baltimore."
Rawlings-Blake said her top economic development priorities include getting Baltimore's slots parlor project back on track after a state panel rejected the first development team, strengthening downtown's west side, and ensuring that the city is making the most of federal stimulus money to help boost projects stalled amid the downturn.
She said she has started a dialogue with federal officials about opportunities for moving more federal employees to Baltimore locations, such as the Social Security Administration's Metro West complex, which will be vacated when that agency moves to city land near the Reisterstown Road Metro station in several years. Her transition team also plans to explore the role of the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency.
Business leaders and developers say they expect Rawlings-Blake, who will be 39 when she takes office, to take a youthful approach to revitalizing downtrodden or neglected areas. They point out that she already has taken an interest in city night life and helped craft legislation aimed at increasing live entertainment in bars and restaurants.
J. Kirby Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said he expects the mayor will have an interest in creating "energy in the heart of downtown."
Mark Wasserman, who coordinated development for former Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s, said Rawlings-Blake "has a real knack for planning and development" and "brings a perspective that is generational."
"She is younger. She wants to do things that will bring young people to the city," said Wasserman, now senior vice president of external affairs for the University of Maryland Medical System. "Part of her agenda is looking at what it takes to make people her age and younger want to be downtown - living downtown, working downtown, dining downtown."
Developer David Tufaro, who is converting a historic mill in the Jones Falls Valley to apartments, said he'd like to see the mayor set a tone that makes people want to live and work in the city: "You have to make people want to love to be here," he said. "It's an important message."
Dixon, whose cozy relationship with developers figured prominently in her recent trial, won't be able to finish many of her development initiatives. Her administration is still working on land-sale negotiations with developers selected to build a $150 million project called Lexington Square to anchor the west side "Superblock." It also has not yet named a developer to take control of the Senator Theatre, acquired by the city after the previous owner defaulted on a loan.