A spectacular weekend for Baltimore [Editorial]

Our view: We can't have the bicentennial of a major historical event here every year, but we can take steps to replicate the vibrancy the Star Spangled Banner anniversary produced

September 15, 2014

After something of a rough week, the city showed off its best to a national audience with this weekend's Star Spangled Spectacular, packing downtown with residents and tourists alike to celebrate a singular moment in American history. The rain cleared in time for the Blue Angels, the Orioles took three out of four from the Yankees to inch closer to a division title, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its dynamic conductor, Marin Alsop, showed off for a national television audience.

How big a deal was it? Big enough that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake showed up despite a case of bronchitis — and wound up having to spend the night in the hospital as a result. Big enough that Gov. Martin O'Malley blew off Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry on Sunday to stick around town for all the events, ceding the stage in the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Hillary Clinton. This may have been just as well, as our governor with presidential dreams would also have been competing with Bill Clinton for media attention — never a smart bet. Instead, Mr. O'Malley looked good by comparison to the current president, who treated the national anthem's bicentennial as a pit stop on the way to an evening of high-dollar fund-raising in Baltimore County.

The weekend's festivities, which formally conclude with the departure of tall ships from the harbor tomorrow, are expected to pump scores of millions of dollars into the local economy. Hotels were sold out, restaurants were full and the foot traffic for downtown merchants was excellent. And unlike the ill-fated Baltimore Grand Prix, this event didn't require closing off streets and erecting barricades — or diverting millions in federal highway funds to spruce up a handful of roadways. Officials are betting its impact will exceed 2012's Sailabration, which generated $166 million in economic activity.

That leads to the question of whether and how Baltimore can replicate that sort of success before the Star Spangled Banner's tricentennial in 2114 — and ideally, every year. As welcome a shot in the arm as the weekend's festivities were for the local tourism industry, they don't amount to the same thing as sustainable economic development unless they can be repeated, and the efforts of Governor O'Malley and others notwithstanding, the War of 1812 simply lacks the cultural cachet of the Revolutionary or Civil wars. Not so many people are coming back for the 201st anniversary of the anthem's writing.

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that tourists respond to authentic expressions of Baltimore's history and culture. The unfortunate thing is that in many respects, we are inevitably overshadowed by Washington — and for that matter, Philadelphia, New York and Boston — when it comes to historical tourism. As rich a legacy as Baltimore has, its past serves more as an exemplar of American life — the rise of shipping, railroads and industry, for example — than as a seat of extraordinary events. The city has made efforts to play up its history, and certainly more can be done, but it's not likely to drive the tourism economy here in the same way that it does in some other East Coast cities.

What the Star Spangled Spectacular offered, like Sailabration before it, was a means to showcase the charm and beauty that Baltimore's waterfront has to offer. If city leaders are looking for ways to draw back some of the thousands of tourists who came here this weekend, it would do well to build support (and funding) for the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan being backed by the Greater Baltimore Committee, Downtown Partnership and others. Refreshing this defining feature of the city and better integrating it with the neighborhoods that surround it is perhaps the single most significant thing Baltimore could do to boost the tourism economy.

More broadly, though, the key to more bustling weekends like this one is for the city to adopt policies to grow Baltimore's population and economy more generally. The livelier Baltimore's streets are, the more shops and restaurants it boasts, the more people are going to want to be a part of it. We can't have the 200th anniversary of a major historical event here every year. But we can have a vibrant city every day.


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