Baltimore: Poised to grow again

Silver lining for Baltimore in census figures: Decline has slowed, city is poised to grow again

February 16, 2011|By Tom Wilcox

Baltimore lost population yet again — that's what recent census data show. Some see this as a negative, but the Baltimore Community Foundation's response is just the opposite. The smallest population decline in 50 years is a clear and strong sign of progress. It suggests greater things to come and should inspire all who love the city to work together to create a bigger and better Baltimore.

It takes time to reverse a city's decline. But the slowing population loss, coupled with many other positive changes, suggests that this can be the decade when the city's population begins to grow again, setting the stage for a comprehensive renaissance.

A recent Bloomberg News headline, "Baltimore Population Drop Slows as City's 'The Wire' Image May Be Receding¸" is instructive. While "The Wire" may accurately depict a small slice of life in Baltimore, we need to spend more time telling the positive story of the rest of our city.

Baltimore should be proud of unprecedented advances in community development, education and law enforcement. Efforts like Healthy Neighborhoods have retained and attracted middle-class citizens. Programs like Baltimore Collegetown Network have increased applications to our 11 colleges and encouraged many more of their graduates to stay in Baltimore, providing new energy and creativity. Initiatives like Live Baltimore have told our story to countless prospective residents.

Other examples abound, but much more is needed. The city's private, public and nonprofit sectors must all adopt similarly focused, comprehensive growth-oriented practices.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore public schools are helping foster population growth through their continued improvement. Bureaucracies have been trimmed in favor of more school choice and accountability. Students are making unprecedented gains in enrollment and test scores, and some schools have long waiting lists. But many parents still feel their best option is to leave the city; reversing that perception remains a top priority.

Our police force has focused on the most dangerous criminals, especially repeat gun offenders, while officers are getting out of their cars to build trust with citizens. The results are strong: double-digit reductions in gun crime and homicides and a 35 percent reduction in juvenile homicides and shootings.

One area where we are not making enough progress is in reducing the city's property tax rate to be more in line with surrounding suburbs. A family with a gross income of $60,000 and living in a $200,000 house could be paying $2,000 more in property taxes in Baltimore — an enormous strain. We're heartened that a consensus is growing that tax-rate parity with Baltimore's neighbors must be a priority.

Unlike many post-industrial cities, Baltimore has experienced significant economic growth through its institutions of higher education, world-renowned hospitals and proximity to Washington, which boosts federal spending. The ongoing military Base Relocation and Closure process is also providing economic momentum.

Those powerful forces, along with ongoing strength in the financial sector, suggest that Baltimore can, through strategic initiatives, re-create itself as an economic engine for Maryland. While the unemployment rate is higher than anyone would like, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore reports that, unlike other post-industrial cities, where there are many job seekers for every job opening, greater Baltimore is more like Austin, Boston and San Francisco, with only about one applicant for every position.

Along with that relatively strong economic outlook, Baltimore can attract new residents with its cost of living, strong cultural amenities, proximity to New York and Washington, and a growing reputation for entertainment/nightlife that lures young people.

With just 10,000 more taxpaying households, Baltimore would realize an estimated $50 million in new tax revenue. But we believe the city is poised to grow substantially more, perhaps by as much as 100,000 in the long term.

The additional revenue would allow the city to begin reducing the property tax rate and meet residents' most pressing needs. At the top of the list would be new resources for addressing the urgent problems depicted in "The Wire," especially treatment and rehabilitation for the tens of thousands of drug-addicted Baltimoreans.

We are absolutely confident that when schools are more uniformly strong, when our neighborhoods are consistently safe, and when there is parity in property tax rates, people will stream to our city.

Moving forward, the city government, along with its partners in the business and nonprofit sectors, should focus intently on the goal of sustaining the rebound that will lead to population growth. By framing investments in Baltimore's future as a strategy to increase population and achieve fiscal sustainability, we can realize our dreams.

Tom Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His e-mail is twilcox@bcf.org.

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