Wednesday, June 6, 2018

GBC's new chair Tiburzi: Expand the Convention Center and rebuild Pimlico

Baltimore's top lawyers have always shaped the face of this city, from Peter Angeles to Jim Shea, past chairman of Venable and candidate for governor.
Meanwhile, his colleague Paul Tiburzi of DLA Piper has been selected chairman of the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee last December, an organization that goes back to 1954 when Baltimore business men banded together to move Baltimore forward. It would take another year before Tiburzi was born in 1955, but in 2018 in his Baltimore SUN he expresses much the same view that the founding fathers had in 1954: Let's build something big.

This diminishes the hope that GBC would pivot to a view of the city that is more informed by its people than by its buildings and more informed by what benefits residents than visitors, a pivot that many hoped the Mayor, the City Council, and Baltimore's business leaders would have taken after the 2015 unrest.
the 2018 mud-fest brought back the question if Pimlico really helps

In fact, several Baltimore business leaders and developers have turned towards people and neighborhood oriented "social impact investments". Kevin Plank's brother has invested money in upgrading the Western Police precinct station to become a more community friendly station. He also invests in Southwest Baltimore around the Hollins Market. Seawall development has long embraced investment in neighborhoods. La Cite's Dan Bythewood is building hundreds of apartments in Poppleton, Ernst Valery is combining project and workforce training in Pigtown.

The popular term social impact investment is also suggested as a tool by the Mayor with her proposal for a Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund which would be fueled by leasing city garages and by private investors flocking to it. As discussions around other articles on this blog show, even social impact investment has its detractors.  Tiburzi's idea, though, that Baltimore should focus on Pimlico and the Convention Center and otherwise dress up its damaged image, though, is a copy from a playbook of a distant past and Mayor Donald Schaefer's big projects. Indeed, Tiburzi refers to Schaefer himself:
I recall Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s campaign in the 1980s: “Baltimore is best, Baltimore’s best.” He willed Baltimore to be thought of as a greater city — both by our citizens and by the rest of the country. And it worked. We need to follow his example today. Mayor Catherine Pugh, like me, worked for Mayor Schaefer and learned from him. She is very much like him in her vision and leadership and her love for Baltimore. She is passionate about our city — as all of us should be. (SUN editorial)
Baltimore's Convention Center: Twice expanded, still too small?
Many people in Baltimore still think that Schaefer was the best mayor ever, what could be wrong with being like him? Aren't projects he oversaw or initiated successes to this day? Wasn't he the one who "put Baltimore on the map" and turned the declining backwater city into a place that visitors would actually visit? Certainly, he was a fearless leader, even in social policy aspects, having appointed the first African American police chief. With his dollar-houses he brought urban pioneers back to the City. He remained modest and grounded, even when he consorted with the powerful, for example when he famously cajoled reluctant mega baker Paterakis into becoming a developer and making strategic investments in what is now Harbor East.
The GBC is and always has been about accomplishing big things — from the Charles Center redevelopment to the Inner Harbor and Harborplace to the original Baltimore Convention Center and Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium. We will continue this tradition by working on two important capital projects. First, we will address the future of the Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown and Baltimore’s version of the Super Bowl. The Preakness belongs in Baltimore. Second, we will tackle an expanded Baltimore Convention Center, the state of Maryland’s largest convention venue. (SUN editorial)
The notion that urban progress means building big things has been a widely adopted mantra all across America. Mayors like ribbon cutting, "build it and they will come" still is too frequently the slogan. But is it good economic development? Already in 2003 Altshuler and Luberoff had their doubts when they wrote their book "Mega Projects - The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment" (Brookings).  
[Cities] physical and economic development has been driven overwhelmingly, however, by private for-profit investment. In many respects, as a result, local politics has always been an aspect of business—a way of bringing government power to bear in support of private investment opportunities. American cities are conspicuous for the emphasis they place on growth and in the intensity with which they compete with one another for it. 
Demographic change in Baltimore since 1998 (GBC Report)
Especially convention centers have become so big and so numerous that there is way more supply than demand. Even very popular and modern facilities in highly attractive cities such as Washington DC or Boston are net money losers until often inflated external effects are considered, such as hotel taxes. However, this can be tricky, too, as Baltimore has learned from its City-owned convention center hotel which remains without net profit to this day.

Times change and the exclusive focus on big brick and mortar projects has run its course. Baltimore has first class sports venues which never really became economic development as some economists maintain, it has an under-visited convention center and a world-famous Inner Harbor with empty stores. Baltimore's biggest problem isn't that all of those big projects have lost their luster and can't hold the candle to the latest and greatest attractions elsewhere. As Altshuler and Luberoff put it:
Since the only actors who seriously care about benefit cost analysis are some professional bureaucrats, such analysis are mostly window dressing. They are routinely structured, moreover, to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs- in effect to provide a veneer for politically selected projects. "Mega Projects - The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment" .  
Most would agree that Baltimore's biggest problem today is, that whatever renaissance the city experienced, it forgot to include large parts of the population and let entire neighborhoods sink into disrepair and crime without decent services, without safety, decent stores and most importantly, without schools that educate. The notion that the bright developments at the Harbor would rub off on the darker corners of Baltimore has proven false, the trickle down did not happen. Instead, two starkly different Baltimore's developed and it becomes increasingly clear, that the forgotten Baltimore will not stay forgotten; while the shiny Baltimore was not able to lift the poor parts, the poor parts certainly prove able to drag down the shiny parts.
Income disparities between State and City and black and white (Census 2013)

To simply go back to the mega projects of the 1970's is not an option in 2018. To wish that Donald Schaefer would come back or, for that matter, Robert Kennedy would be President, does not solve today's problems. Tiburzi acknowledges the problem in three short sentences, although he points to crime and not to the social ills that cause it, as the issue, thus "solving the problem" will remain elusive.
Of course, violent crime must be reduced, and the perception of the city as a dangerous place must be changed. Progress on this difficult issue has been made, but more must be done. The GBC will continue to work with Mayor Pugh and the community to solve this problem.
On Tuesday, Tiburzi doubled down on his points on WBAL radio. Tiburzi's focus on Pimlico and the Convention Center does not address the structural regional issues which the recent 20th GBC report included and which  Donald Fry, GBC's , President and CEO of GBC addressed at the unveiling of the report:
“The region’s strong shift to technology, medicine and the digital economy is particularly promising and shows the innovation and drive of our business community and major educational institutions. [...]Some findings in the report remind us that the GBC and private sector must continue to explore how we can continue to work with elected officials and others to ensure that the increased wealth and education that some segments of society have experienced helps lift those struggling with rising costs of living and the skill demands of the modern labor market.” (SUN) 
Having no  safety net of savings or fixed assets
Here is at least a recognition that there are systemic the non brick and mortar elements that drive the chasm between the two Baltimores. This is a lot more promising than the old focus on grand projects.

Attracting visitors and creating more quality of life for existing residents are not mutually exclusive. They can be done in parallel and should be done, wherever they increase the tax base that is needed for more equity and investment in quality of life. However, the focus of the op-ed piece on the Convention Center and Pimlico addresses two projects which would neither directly, nor indirectly improve equity or quality of life, because they would not even pay for themselves and become community loss leaders.

Just like in Cincinnatti after their unrest in 2001, Baltimore's business leaders need to finally band together and address Baltimore's systemic inequities.

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