One of the great intangibles in the renaissance of Baltimore's old commercial center and Inner Harbor area is the imaginative leadership of its mayor, William Donald Schaefer.
Detractors may not agree with Schaefer's way of getting things done, but they grudgingly concede that the rebuilding of the city -- its commercial centers in particular -- is a tribute to his leadership.
Schaefer is a visionary and he sees the redevelopment of his city's traditional commercial areas as few mayors do. Planners and developers notwithstanding, it is Schaefer's vision of the city that has sparked the surge in economic development over the past 12 years.
Above all, Schaefer is an innovator and he is willing to take risks when it comes to building the city's economy and securing employment for its residents. A planned visit to Washington for breakfast next Tuesday is typical of the Schaefer style.
To be sure, Schaefer doesn't plan to drive 40 miles down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just to have bacon and eggs at 8 a.m. at Washington's Capital Hilton Hotel. In fact, you might say that breakfast is incidental to Schaefer's mission here. He and Baltimore officials accompanying him hope to strike several business deals that will generate more development and jobs for Baltimore.
The breakfast meeting, to which more than 100 Washington-area developers and lenders have been invited, is part of a new economic development marketing concept that Schaefer suggested to Baltimore's Neighborhood Progress Administration. The NPA is a Baltimore agency formed by a merger of the former department of housing and community development and the office of manpower resources.
The marketing program. which is being coordinated by the NPA, was presented in June to Baltimore developers and lenders. Schaefer liked the concept so well he suggested that it be taken on the road, first to Washington and possibly to other cities, depending on its success.
"We are trying to draw attention to an area in Baltimore that is between two successful ends of a major corridor, which is Charles Street," explained Jacqueline Lampell, marketing director for NPA. "We are promoting property for development. Lately, Baltimore has become a hot property because of reasonable rates here. We chose Washington to market the property because Washington is a central location" for developers and lenders in the District, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.
The area in question has been designated "Charles North" -- a 30-square-block area around Charles Street, between the Inner Harbor area and Johns Hopkins University. The City of Baltimore, the federal government and Amtrak plan to spend between $10 million and $20 million for improvements in the area to stimulate private development.
What makes the pitch in Washington unique is that Schaefer and the NPA aren't promoting development of city-owned parcels but of privately held property. "We are not real estate agents selling property," Lampell emphasized. "We look at it as showcasing 'Charles North.' If this goes well, we'll be doing it in other cities."
The economic development road show that the NPA plans to bring to Washington will feature slides and film segments of Charles North and the more than 30 properties that are available for development. Several properties have been targeted for mixed-use development that will include office, residential and retail space.
Lampell described the area as a "little bit different" from lower Charles Street, noting that at least 50,000 residents live nearby. Hence, the city hopes to attract services such as food stores, specialty retailers, restaurants and theaters, in addition to office buildings.
The marketing effort will involve more than just an invitation to developers and other potential investors. The NPA is prepared to provide technical as well as financial assistance to investors who may be interested in "Charles North" or one of 34 other commercial revitalization districts. The agency is making available a combination of loans, including a new package called the Baltimore City Private Activity Bond Program, for acquisitions, rehabilitation, leasehold improvements and equipment purchases. Loans under the new program carry a below-market fixed interest rate of 10.5 percent for 20 years.
Lampell describes the new marketing concept as "the beginning of something exciting." While that may be true, in the final analysis it is an important part of an overall program in which the city -- not developers -- takes the lead in guiding development that produces jobs, expands the tax base and conforms to the needs of its population.
Citibank, Maryland (N.A.) will manage credit card accounts for certain national retailers, but won't offer private-label cards to customers as reported in last Tuesday's column.