June 9, 2014 Leave a comment
Urban planners, economists, and government officials – take note. Economic revitalization and making money is as easy as connecting a few dots.
While it may come as a surprise to some, the City of Baltimore has done an excellent job of following this all too often overlooked rule of simplicity. In the Charm City, connecting the dots has been about taking some basic assets and maximizing their economic impact at an increasing rate. A truism of economic development is that success encourages others to take the risk to invest. At a certain point, enough investment occurs to have significantly reduced perceived entrepreneurial risk. Economists probably have a term for this, but I’d call what’s happening in Baltimore just plain old common sense.
Baltimore is blessed with an omnipresent harbor that automatically becomes the first dot. You see, people love bodies of water and are drawn to them. The Charm City’s location on the water also gives it a strong maritime tradition. Once upon a time, the Inner Harbor itself and its contiguous areas were economically viable ports that supported major commercial activity. As time marched on, the relatively shallow waters of the Inner Harbor became a limiting factor. That was a problem until someone got the bright idea and chutzpah to build the National Aquarium there. See dot number five below.
Historical and cultural elements collectively become the second dot. Examples include Fort McHenry (as in the “Star Spangled Banner”), the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, several historic port areas, Shot Tower, Babe Ruth’s birthplace, Edgar Allen Poe’s gravesite, Peabody Conservatory, Discovery Art Museum, and several locations of considerable import with respect to our country’s ongoing civil rights movements.
Baltimore’s landscape of contiguous and uniquely characteristic neighborhoods now enters as dot number three. North of Inner Harbor is the downtown business/financial area and just above that is historic Mt Vernon. Sitting just to the south of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards is the resurgent and quirkily trendy Federal Hill area. Just beyond that to the east is Locust Point. Back at the Inner Harbor, now moving east, we encounter Little Italy, Harbor East, Fell’s Point, and then Canton.
The people who live in these neighborhoods and those nearby are dot number four. One defining aspect of Baltimore’s personality is a certain Southern-style charm. It’s similar to the vibe one encounters in New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah. But it’s considerably north of these cities-although still below the Mason-Dixon line. What results is an energetic, festive and eclectic mix. Great places to eat, to enjoy a pint or pop, eat a crab cake, and take in the groove of excellent music for next to nothing. In other words, big fun!
Dots Five and Six
The National Aquarium definitely got the ball rolling in the right direction. That’s our fifth dot. But that was back in 1981. At the risk of missing something in between, dot number six came on board in 1992 when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened its doors as the home of the baseball Orioles. In 1998, the NFL Ravens moved into the same neighborhood, strongly establishing another Charm City destination.
Even with these very functional dots in place, Baltimore still needed more dots. And just as importantly…a way for people to safely move between them.
Connecting the Dots
Here’s how Baltimore’s planners and developers literally connected the dots and hit a home run. They invested in the infrastructure to make it physically possible to walk safely from Inner Harbor to the adjoining and aforementioned neighborhoods in either direction. There is now a promenade that goes along the water for several miles in each direction. It is the chief linking mechanism for tourists, and is heavily used by locals for outdoor fitness pursuits and routine transit. With the help of a few city streets, it’s possible to walk, run, or bicycle all the way from Locust Point to Camden. Low fare bus service is also available via the Charm City Circulator.
With the promenade in place and increasing number of people on it, our next wave of common sense came crashing ashore. All those people eventually need to eat and a large percentage of them need a place to stay. OMG- let’s build restaurants and hotels. Restaurants and hotels add jobs that are filled by local residents. Enter some highly visible police presence, and we’ve really got some momentum going. You see, it’s really quite amazing. If people feel safe and your city has something to offer, they will visit your city if you connect the dots for them. They’ll even pay to park!
And success begets more investment seeking a share of the rewards. It’s a beautiful thing. Ask Under Armour’s CEO Kevin Plank whose company is headquartered in Locust Point and plans to buy Rec Pier (featured in TV series “Homicide”) and turn it into an upscale boutique hotel that serves tourists, business travelers, and his company’s visitors. His plans include shuttling his visitors from Fell’s Point to Locus Point via water taxi. Nice touch. (link) Still need convincing to be bullish on Baltimore? Here’s a link to 89 million more reasons.
Momentum in Baltimore isn’t all about tourism. Highly visible condo development seeks to satisfy the lifestyle demands of those who want to call Baltimore home. Young upwardly mobile professionals, as well as those who have already achieved some level of success, want to live there. So, build it and they will come seems to be a natural result of connecting the dots. Many cities across can learn from this.